The rationale for casting an ensemble of actresses to enact Major John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Colorado River expedition eludes me. But as penned by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis, “Men On Boats” is off-the-canyon-walls funny. A joint Off Broadway production of Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons, the show combines the playful inventiveness of the former with the theatrical discipline of the latter. Paddle or portage your own boat to the theater — but get there.
Davis’s abstract staging is its own quirky treat. The four boats for the 1869 expedition — undertaken by the one-armed explorer Major John Wesley Powell (Kelly McAndrew, gruff-voiced and authoritative) — are represented by wooden wedges pushed like hand-plows by the lead boatmen. The steep canyon walls are suggested by still photos projected on the side and back walls of the small stage.
That leaves the swells and rapids encountered on this dangerous journey for the actors to create in their amusingly melodramatic readings of lines like: “Left! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks right! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks!” This is a lot more exciting — and considerably more fun — than it sounds in print.
The ensemble players really throw themselves, so to speak, into their roles. (In capsizing accidents, the loss of a side of bacon becomes more tragic than the loss of a human life.) The scrappy hunter and trapper William Dunn, who also wants to be remembered as an innovator, is played with a nice swagger by Kristen Sieh. Elizabeth Kenny is delightfully dour as Old Shady, Powell’s older brother and a Civil War vet. Danielle Davenport combines brains and bravado for Hall, the all-important mapmaker. And Donnetta Lavinia Grays has the right stuff to play the adventurer John Colton Sumner, who made a snowshoeing trek in the Rocky Mountains just to say he did it.
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The playwright says she based her play on Powell’s published journals of his historic expedition, the first sanctioned by the U.S. government, to chart the course of the Colorado. Why this captured her imagination — and why she wrote her play to be performed by actors of “fluid” race and gender — isn’t revealed in the production. But it does give one pause.
One thing must be said, however, about the gender role reversal: It inspired some stunning costumes from Asta Bennie Hostetter. Working from a basic palette of black and gray with white accents, the designer has fashioned a handsome assortment of manly Western outfits, each suited to the characters who wear them. Major Powell wears a blue suit that looks vaguely like a uniform. Old Shady, the battered old soldier, looks like he’s used to sleeping in his clothes. Sumner, who is always ready for action, carries a thick rope on his belt. Fancy vests and striped trousers are worn by more citified types.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this show is such fun. It could be the cleverly self-aware dialogue. “We have boats, we have somebody who makes us coffee. We have a map-maker. This is cushy frontiering,” Sumner points out to a fellow adventurer.
The deliberately anachronistic language is also good for a laugh. When the men start fighting over the dwindling tobacco rations, Powell takes a head count of the smokers. One man casts a half-vote: “I mean, I smoke when I’m stressed.”
It could be the male bluster and bravado, so ridiculous when women are spouting it. “Our eyes, the eyes of hunters and explorers and land rovers like us,” Powell pontificates. “Our eyes will be old some day, and new eyes will not see the things we see with such a sheen.” He goes on, rather more insightfully: “This whole country, built on the idea of newness. Eventually it all gets old.”
Old, maybe — but never boring.