Men On Boats: a review

Last week I saw a performance of Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men On Boats produced by the Speakeasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion.

All I knew about the production was that it told the story of John Wesley Powell’s voyage down the Colorado River, mapping territory in 1869. And that all the 10 characters — all male, all white — would not be portrayed by cis-men, per the instruction of the playwright.

So… it was great! Lack of expectations probably played a factor, but I found the play extremely entertaining, funny and moving, and cleverly staged.

The stage had a couple of structures on either side, and when the men got into their boats (wooden frames that they held), the lights turned a bit blue and off they went, bouncing along, tipping from side to side, just like how a child would pretend to be in a boat. It worked! When the group entered the Grand Canyon, nets of ropes rose up on either side, become stone walls and I was there with them.

The acting was superb, with great comic timing by a number of the actors, and a terrific amount of charisma from the woman who played Powell. I could see why men would follow him into the unknown through her performance. Other actors got their turns to shine, including two who played Ute indians, a younger expedition member and Powell’s taciturn older brother, Old Shady. “Tin fish!”

What did it mean to have women and trans actors in this performance? I’m not sure. I’m certain that white male actors would have seemed a bit distant, and give the story a more “objective” feeling. Without them, I felt more drawn into the story, and there seemed to be more subjectivity in the telling of history.

It’s worth noting that the premiere of this show coincided around the same time as “Hamilton” which also uses unusual casting to its advantage.

Worth seeing if you get a chance.

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