Men on Boats – We Pull Together

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

It’s a shame the way historical information is presented and subsequently digested, especially to and by kids.  I should know, I was the director of an American History museum for six years.  The issue is that we are, as a public, so used to seeing museum exhibits and textbook sidebars with names like: “Women’s Work During the Civil War” and “The African-American Sailor’s Experience” and “Chinese Immigration During Western Expansion” that we begin to automatically segregate POC, women and queer populations; we mentally place them outside, adjacent to, the “real” “main” “important” white, straight, male story.  I’m not trying to blame curators, authors, or teachers for attempting to include diverse viewpoints, but the problem is that those people aren’t footnotes.  They have been there the whole time, not close to history, but making history, and their stories are just as central.  That’s why a play like Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats is so important, and yet so deceptively simple: by capitalizing on theater as a visual medium, Backhaus pointedly reminds us of that very fact.  Oh, and also, it’s really fucking fun.

Boats recounts a great adventure: in 1869, Major John Wesley Powell set out on a government-funded expedition, nine men in four little boats exploring what is now called the Grand Canyon [there’s more on this in the EXCELLENT program notes by Dramaturg Kris Messer, seriously, Messer does an incredible job in what is really a mini-essay on this topic, one that I will save and refer to].  In Backhaus’ vision, all of these men are specifically played by non-cisgender, non-white actors.  And it’s brilliant.  I really can’t think of a better way to talk about the racism of Manifest Destiny, how the complexion of independent, brave, penetrative act of exploring (one that we as Americans are so very proud of) changes depending upon who tells it.  There is a thread running through the play about the christening of various “discovered” natural wonders.  As we watch non-white, non-male actors play white guys guffawing and swaggering around rocks and peaks, pointing at things and proudly claiming them, naming them after themselves, we viscerally feel how deeply wrong that was.  Those things had names, names given to them by indigenous populations that had “discovered” them countless years ago.  Those people were already there.

I don’t want to make this sound like some humorless slog, because it couldn’t be further from that.  This is a hilarious, awesome, thrilling adventure story.  Director Katie Keddell and AD Kat Kaplan pull off some of the most beautifully specific staging I’ve seen in a great while.  I believed that the actors were in boats, even though they weren’t (some productions give them little prows, or other signifiers, this one doesn’t).  I followed the action completely, and that action is as good as you’ll see at any summer blockbuster.  Vessels capsizing, navigation of swirling rapids, line being thrown hand-over-hand, boats splashing and crashing over waterfalls…and all with nothing more than a painted floor and the actors’ bodies.  It’s really something to see.  Keddell also emphasizes the complicated nature of the relationships between these men, and gives us a large group that feels like small, close-knit, intimate ensemble.  Now, obviously, some of these portrayals get a little archetypal (the annoying “kid brother” type, the “angry guy”, the “British fop”) but, you know, who isn’t a little archetypal?

The cast is uniformly excellent.  It’s hard to pick standouts because they all feel so integral to the delicate balance of the group.  Bethany Mayo strikes all the right chords playing John Powell just a touch over-the-top (I mean, the show was sourced from Powell’s journals, of course he would portray himself as wise, majestic, the consummate adventurer!).  It’s funny, and I loved it.  Cori Dioquino shows astounding range, going from the last time I saw her onstage as a smarty-pants pixie girl in Cohesion’s Neverwhere, to this version of the (perhaps understandably) sour William Dunn.  The tension between Powell and Dunn is deftly explored, drives the show, in fact, but it never gets too mean or out-of-hand.  There was clearly a struggle for power, but Mayo and Dioquino make it clear that these two respected each other, and were on the same side.  Martha Robichaud is adorable as Bradley, that kid who talks to much and is a little too enthusiastic.  Caitlin Carbone and Utkarsh Rajawat play the extremely close brother team of Seneca and O.G. Howland, and their interaction feels absolutely genuine, well-worn and familial.

Logan Davidson was an early favorite for me as company cook William Hawkins, and remained that way through the entire show.  Man, is Davidson’s face great, especially as Hawkins struggles to feed the company on increasingly small stores of food.  There’s just something so matter-of-fact about the performance that is hysterical while growing a little dark towards the end as the threat of actual starvation looms.  Jane Jongeward provides a lot of the comedy as the “soft” Brit Frank Goodman, a moneyed explorer who was there as more of a hobby, much to the eye-rolls of the rest of the gang.  Justin Lawson Isett brings some of the more steely, solid, powerfully poignant “we’re going to get there or else” moments as Walter Powell, aka “Old Shady,” brother to John (and who knew Isett had such a great, rumbly, singing voice?).  And oh dear Jesus is Emily Classen starting to make a reputation for herself for epic performances in the Baltimore small theater scene or what?  From sword fighting pirate queens to this latest bear-trapping, grizzled version of professional guide John Sumner, Classen makes such a strong, sure, confident impression onstage that it’s hard to rip your eyes off her.  Alice Stanley rounds off the cast as navigator Andy Hall, younger than the rest and a bit of a peacemaker, Hall is sort of just happy to be there.

As far as the technical elements go, I’m going to use a word I hardly ever use, because I believe it is applied too liberally and often incorrectly, but here we go:  they’re immersive.  The entire room is kitted out (set design by Brad Norris, scenic art by Haley Horton) as the walls and stones of the Grand Canyon, and the audience feels like we’re sitting on the banks of the Colorado river.  The treatment seems to be paper or papier-mâché, which is clever, if a little delicate (the actors ripped through it several times, not sure how well it’ll hold up over the run).  Costumes by Jess Rassp look good and right rugged to me, though they need to be dirtied up some, but that’s my constant complaint on this kind of thing.   Sound design by Max Garner added to the general thrills and spills, with references to several famous movie themes that could have felt derivative if they weren’t so tongue in cheek (though, once again, I find that Cohesion favors ridiculously loud animals sounds, turn the fucking birds down).  The only element I felt was off here was lighting from Lana Riggins.  It felt like a missed opportunity, as I can’t really remember any strong lighting effects.

BOTTOM LINE:  Men on Boats is a strong, layered, beautifully staged end to Cohesion’s season.  It feels like the company is getting more sure of their perspective with every show they do, and this one is no exception.  Fabulous direction of a thoughtful, well-cast gang gives us an epic thrillride and an important intellectual exercise all wrapped up in one deliciously gorgeous package.  If there’s a group that embodies the very nature of “think big, stay small” more than this one, I don’t know about it.  Wonderful work.

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