Man, these guys just don't get it.
No matter what the Grand Canyon throws at John Wesley Powell's patchwork crew of Civil War vets, mountain men, and thrill-seekers to show them what an inhospitable environment it is – whitewater rapids, precipitous waterfalls, treacherous rocks, spoiled food, snakes! – these dudes paddle on like they totes got this, bro. And they keep slapping names on the natural features they pass like everything is theirs – first come, first served – even though they're continuously running into people or evidence of people who were there before them: other white explorers, Mormon farmers, and, oh yeah, Utes and other indigenous peoples. Men on Boats – which, by the way, has neither, but more on that later – depicts the titular guys as so caught up in the fever of westward expansion, they seem to be suffering from Manifest Density.
In recounting Powell's exploratory expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, Jaclyn Backhaus hasn't quite rewritten history – her play maintains an impressive fidelity to the basic facts of the journey – but she's given it a decidedly contemporary sound (e.g., two explorers boast about their craft being the "party boat!" while a Ute says the whites they negotiated with "let us keep our birth lands, so we were pretty stoked"), and she's certainly recast it: The playwright has stipulated that the expedition's 10 white males be played by anything but. So we see the behavior of these macho bros performed by women of assorted races, cultures, sexual orientations, and gender identities. It shows us that behavior through a different lens, and we can see much more of the folly in it.
With Shawn Sides of the Rude Mechs captaining Backhaus' time-warping, identity-flipped script at Mary Moody Northen Theatre, the production dishes up that folly with some of the same irreverence and vigorous theatricality that energizes her home company's shows. Instead of anything resembling boats, we get something more like benches on rollers, which Sides sends careering around the MMNT stage floor. With the canyon walls on the upper stage spaces represented by structures wrapped in earth-toned canvas (the set's by senior design student Jacob Foster), the explorers look like they're in a Soap Box Derby race beneath an art exhibit by Christo. It's as offbeat as seeing these 19th-century adventurers exchange high-fives, but also right in keeping with a script in which one of them yells at another to "stop freaking out!"
Tyler Layton, an assistant professor in the St. Edward's Department of Performing Arts, takes the lead here in modeling testosterone-fueled drive. She puffs up Powell with reckless bravado and an unyielding sense of his own infallibility. He wouldn't look at a map even if he had one; he always knows he's on the right track, and nothing – not lost boats, not churning waters, not imminent starvation – can persuade him to abandon his course. Layton also keeps the one-armed geologist on a constant caffeine high, buzzed about the size of the challenge before him, the perils he faces, and the glory surely awaiting him.
That charge, with its confidence and certainty, gives both Powell's men and the actors playing them something to rally around and helps pull the cast into an ensemble. For all the play's humor at the explorers' expense, Backhaus pays sincere tribute to their courage and fortitude. Scenes of danger may look comic because of the theatrical way they're presented (someone writhing on the floor to show a man overboard, Layton on tiptoe clutching some canvas to show Powell hanging off a cliff), but all the actors work in concert to convey the threats and play them for high stakes. And seeing so many women engage in the kind of high adventure that's typically men's territory is a thrill of its own.
In that way, Men on Boats keeps giving us our cake and letting us eat it, too. It's comical, but it treats danger seriously. It's historical but provides a contemporary viewpoint. It depicts men, but in doing so lets women be adventurers. And those women expose the men's cluelessness but also give them charm. The guys may not ever get it, but we do.
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