By Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Will Davis
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“On the 24th of May, 1869, we started down the Green River with provisions for eight or ten months, according to Major Powell. Our provisions got wet and were lost in different ways, and finally the largest boatload was lost in Diamond Falls on the Green River. All this reduced our rations. Though we had plenty of fish on Green River, we caught very few on the Colorado and soon found we were up against it for grub.” – Billy Hawkins’ Account of the 1869 Expedition as related in a 1907 letter to Robert Brewster Stanton
Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Men on Boats” is an enjoyable mashup of a send-up and an extended Saturday Night Live sketch (and more) that is based on the actual events surrounding the first United States Government sanctioned expedition in 1869 (the Powell Geographic Expedition) led by Major John Wesley Powell – a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers culminating in the passage through what is now the Grand Canyon.
Kelly McAndrew portrays Major Powell with the rest of the ten-member cast portraying Powell’s team and other characters encountered on the Expedition. Based on historical documents – published diaries and letters from Powell’s Expedition – Ms. Backhaus’s script is a parody of the events of Powell’s travels. She gives the historic events a contemporary flavor allowing her actors to bring their own understanding of their characters to the stage. The action of the play is somewhat repetitive unfortunately. One ‘men on boats’ episode after another with turns “left” and turns “right” and “hugging the wall” becomes tedious. Oars are lost, boats capsized, provisions deep-sixed, men go overboard (and are rescued) repeatedly. But the send-up is pure fun and the audience is engaged and responsive.
The cast is uniformly excellent and works well together and no one stands out – as it should be. However, Jocelyn Bioh (Hawkins) and Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Sumner) deliver a particularly memorable scene with a rattlesnake and frying pan and Kristen Sieh (Dunn) and Kelly McAndrew have great fun naming mountains with the three “Unwritten Rules for Getting Something Named After You.”
Will Davis’s direction is as efficient as one would expect. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is simple, clean, and lends itself to the action of the script. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are perfect for the gender-bending ruse. Lighting is important in a bare-staged production and Solomon Weisbard manages to successfully delineate playing areas and spaces.
Part of the “gag” of course is the reality that the team of misfits is by no means the first to traverse these rivers or make it this far west of Wyoming. Powell and his men encounter: Original Americans, in this case, Tsauwiat Chief of the Paiute Nation and his wife (Hannah Cabell and Danaya Esperanza); Mormans; and the smattering of “other settlers” on land not belonging to the White Man.
What precisely is innovative in “Men on Boats?” One could consider the “non-traditional” casting of all women in a play with all male characters and, additionally, casting actors of color in roles typically filled with white actors – and in the case of “Men on Boats – two male Paiute Original People. However, neither of these dramatic conventions is either original or particularly engaging. Women in drag, performing in drag is not new. True, it does not seem to draw as much interest in the United States as men in drag on the dramatic stage – nonetheless, not ground-breaking. One thinks immediately of Julie Andrews and Meryl Streep. And the Schmooze Brothers have made a successful career of performing as “drag kings.” And, fortunately, non-traditional casting based on color is becoming more evident. What is innovative in “Men on Boats” the play’s succeeding in not simply being a parody of an iconic post-Civil War Expedition, but a parody of itself. That creates the best humor and the best memories of Jaclyn Backhaus’s play.