SpeakEasy's "Men on Boats": See-Worthy?

The Cast of "Men on Boats"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

Men on Boats, a 2015 startlingly comic play by Jaclyn Backhaus, explores the infamous 1869 expedition of the Green and Colorado Rivers, and what would become known as the Grand Canyon, led by John Wesley Powell (Robin JaVonne Smith), a one-armed Army major cartographer, topographer and military engineer who had lost most of his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh. It was his intent was to map the region. The play is based on Powell's The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (his work that historically contained some alternate facts and had points of view other than his omitted).   Employing period attire, morals and mores, but contemporary vernacular of our century rife with hilarious anachronisms, in several senses of the term, Men on Boats is a real trip.

In just ninety minutes, the ten-member cast binds a spell. Along with Smith in the lead role, the cast includes O.G. Howland (Lindsay Allyn Cox), printer,editor, hunter; Hawkins (Ally Dawson), cook, Civil War soldier; William Dunn (Veronika Duerr), hunter and trapper; John “Jack” Colton Sumner (Bridgette Hayes), hunter, trapper, Civil War soldier; Hall (Alice Kabia); Powell's slightly challenged brother, “Old Shady” (Mal Malme), Civil War captain; Frank Goodman (Cody Sloan), British adventurer; Bradley (Hayley Spivey), Civil War lieutenant, alternate chronicler of the expedition, and Seneca Howland (Ellie van Amerongen), cartographer. There are also Mormon and Native American characters, but to describe their roles would be to give too much away. In four small boats, named No Name, Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde's Sister and Emma Dean (the last named after Powell's wife), they braved the unknown. You are forewarned by Powell at the beginning of their trek: “We're on the river now, crew; there will be churning, there will be swells. Keep your bearings.” All ten of these performers are at the top of their games, with not a clinker in the bunch. And that goes for the creative team as well.

Robin JaVonne Smith, Bridgette Hayes & Veronika Duerr in "Men on Boats"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

The creative contributions include ingenious Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord, apt Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, terrific Lighting Design by Daisy Long, and clever Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. One might have observed by this point the dominance of gender-bending in the team, including the Stage Manager (Samantha Layco) and Assistant Stage Manager (Katherine Humbert). As the playwright states in the script, she is writing for “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid and/or non-gender-conforming”; she in fact chose to prohibit cisgender male actors from playing these characters, for a reason. Thus as they traverse the rivers, it becomes more of a transversal as they rewrite their story. The trek was the subject of the largely forgotten 1960 Disney film Ten Who Dared, a more traditional treatment of the three month discovery by the first Europeans of the canyons. Powell described the land as having insufficient water for farming (and was proved correct years later in the Dust Bowl tragedy).

In the background lurk the attitudes of privileged and entitled people of European descent toward presumed native savagery and barbarism which “civilization” was meant to conquer, and the concept of “acculturation”, psychological changes that were anticipated by cross-cultural imitation. This may sound heavy, but in the forefront is just plain fun, in what is perhaps the most creative production in many a season. The descent over the perilous rapids and especially the waterfall alone, and the obvious awe evidenced by the crew's first view of the great canyon walls (which they never took for granite) is reward enough for any audience. The wonderful Director Dawn M. Simmons notes the work's “playfulness” with history (herstory?) and the playwright adds that she intentionally hands over the responsibility to the audience of the duty to tell the story the way we want to hear it, to imbue it with our own perceptions. Its unorthodoxy is just part of the wonder and originality of this unforgettable work.

You may share the journey from now through October 7th and pause and ponder, just how manifest was their destiny?

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