Men on Boats

By Philip Pearce

MEN ON BOATS, which opened last weekend at The Western Stage. is a provocative look at a piece of 19th century American frontier history that breaks through barriers of present-day theatrical expectation and defies gender stereotypes.

    In 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell responded to an invitation from President Ulysses S Grant to collect a ten-man team, put them into three boats and explore the great unknown region of the west we know today as the Grand Canyon. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus uses the people and events of Powell’s journal to tell a tale of a disparate band of adventurers struggling to bond into a team,  learning group discipline and facing inner conflicts along with physical setbacks ranging from the rocks and shoals of the Colorado and Green Rivers to rotten apples, collywobbles and rattlesnakes. Director Ellen Brooks and an energetic cast skillfully fit all of it, even a mountain rescue sequence, into the confines of Nicole Anne Bryant-Stephens’ craggy Studio Theater stage set. 

    But the whole venture takes on a startling new dimension when it turns out that the men rocking and rolling through all those rapids and boulders are played by ten female actors. They take on the assignment with a gusto that turns a piece of fast-paced western adventure into a sly commentary on the macho swagger and hidden vulnerability of males caught in a series of major crises. The approach is raucous and ironic, but never mean spirited.    

    I loved the raw physicality of this piece. There’s a ludicrous military precision in the way the motley gang repeatedly line up like rows of Legos before slinging legs and luggage over the gunwales of their battered boats. Their bodies jerk and lurch in lockstep as they navigate whirlpools, boulders and rapids. Their whoops and curses are all the funnier for being offered in the contralto to coloratura registers. And the strenuous staggers and over-the-side rescues only give the contrasting quiet of reflective campfire moments a deeper poignancy. Like the memorable sequence where Powell and a cohort, I forget which, stand awestruck at their first view of the canyon.

    Niki Moon, often cast as a sly femme fatale, proves her versatility as a sharp, focused and tirelessly hopeful John Wesley Powell. He needs all the inner drive he can muster to deal with problems like the potential mutiny of Christina Moore’s  disgruntled William Dunn, a crew member who spends a lot of time persuading himself that he’d do a better job than Powell at leading the expedition.

    Right from the start, Powell makes a distinction between crew members who have signed up with a strong purpose, like Kristin Brewer’s steady, reliable mapmaker Hall and those who have come along simply because they can’t think of anything better to do. A talky, inexperienced Brit volunteer named Frank Goodman falls somewhere between those two extremes. Anna Schumacher never lets the ups and downs of a slightly shaky English accent slow her pace or dampen her bubbly charm as a well-meaning dimwit who joins the expedition to admire the frontier scenery but slinks glumly back to Old Blighty when the river journey turns into something more than just a sight-seeing tour. 

    There are fine characterizations all around, including Micaela David as the amiable, overworked cook Hawkins, who provides a silver lining to an infestation of snakes by proving that, once battered to death, they make a delectable campfire entree. Monica LaVelle was so successful in turning herself into Powell’s languid, tobacco-chewing brother Old Shady that I had to keep checking to convince myself the person behind that attitude and make-up was really the attractive blonde on the program’s Actor Profiles page and not Gabby Hayes. 

    The rest of the cast offer a convincing group portrait of rough and ready maleness.   DeAnna Diaz plays a scholarly Seneca Howland, Christina McGovern buddies up attractively as her brother OG, and the pair of them return as a couple of the savvy leaders of a local Native American tribe. Jennifer L Foreman appears as the aristocratic East Coaster John Colton Sumner. Florence Paget is a helpful and resourceful lad named Bradley, who supplies encouragement and his pair of pants to the rescue of the one-armed Powell from a Colorado mountain crag.   

    It’s a company of performers with a lot of impressive energy and conviction. What they tend to lack is the seasoned player’s subtle ability to give a brief episode of the play the emphasis and meaning that make it something more than just a brief episode. Shakespeare makes it easy by often closing a short scene with two rhyming lines that sum up what has just been happening. Modern scripts like this one, which has a fair share of short two-character sequences, are a bigger challenge. Actors need to point lines with a helpful emphasis they sometimes didn’t get in all the rush and activity of the story. 

    But then it happened, suddenly and powerfully, as the opening night performance came to an end. Anna Schumacher returned in the brief but significant second role of a glad-hander frontier bigwig named Mr Asa. He’s been sent to gush congratulations onto Powell and his reduced team of five oarsmen on the success of their venture. But his speech carries the unwitting and unwelcome message that it’s the men like himself and Powell who’ll be named on memorial plaques and in frontier history books.  Everyone else will quietly drift out of sight into the shadows of passing time.

    Except, of course, if they are temporarily resurrected in an exciting piece of local theater like Men on Boats.