Men on Boats

ACT Strand Theater, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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In 1869, one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell, with nine other men and four wooden boats, explored the Green and Colorado rivers, in the first official U.S. government-sponsored expedition of the area. He kept a diary of the three-month ordeal (“The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,” available in paperback) in which he survived famine, mutiny, and dangerous rapids. Not all the group members made it through.

Contemporary playwright Jaclyn Backhaus used Powell’s diary and turned his harrowing tribulations upside-down in her very funny, post-modern, all-female take on the journey. The 90-minute, one-act play follows the crew down the rivers through the Grand Canyon in a roughly chronological 21st-century mash-up of the original journey.

With excellent direction (Tamilla Woodard), an artistic set in ochre colors (Nina Ball, scenic designer), mountain men costumes (Christine Crook, costume designer), and fabulously synchronized body movements (Danyon Davis, movement coach), “Men on Boats” creatively captures the look and feel of the voyage, although the tongue-in-cheek dialogue mocks the macho maleness of the ménage. Throughout, however, Jaclyn Backhaus weaves true emotion into the play so that we can sympathize with the crew’s travails.

The actors are uniformly terrific as they subtly caricature their 19th-century manly adventurer/hero roles. Liz Sklar is effective as John Wesley Powell, the leader who is a bit above the fray. Sarita Ocón plays Dunn, who thinks he should be in charge of the team. Arwen Andersen, as the only British member, makes the most of her poignant moment. Amy Lizardo, as Hawkins the cook, kills a snake so realistically that I thought one was there for a moment. Even though there are ten actors in the cast, we do get a sense of each distinct personality and background, while we watch them bond with each other, tell stories, stomp around, go hungry, and worry about their futures.

Most impressive are the actors’ coordinated swaying body movements as rapids approach and their replication of capsizing and falling into the roughest of the whitewater. As one who has been through those rapids and tumbled out of our raft, I can attest to the simultaneous thrill of excitement and frisson of fear that the fast-moving water commands. The actors’ screams, albeit unnerving to the audience, are ubiquitous among whitewater rafters.

In format, “Men on Boats” is a bit more like a school pageant rather than a typical well-made play. It mimics the 19th-century white American history that gives Powell credit for “discovering” the Grand Canyon, while simultaneously pointing out that Native Americans had populated the region for centuries. Even white men had proceeded Powell. But since his was the first authorized U.S. expedition, and they mapped the region, Powell’s group gets the credit.

“Men on Boats” is a funny, light production with an easy-to-swallow 21st-century female look at 19th-century male American history.

Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

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