Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Men on Boats

Recently I had the opportunity to see Main Street Theater's production of Men on Boats, a one-set, two-act play by Jaclyn Backhaus that portrays the ten-man Powell expedition that in 1869 traversed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Only in this case it's a ten-woman expedition -- the characters remain male, but the actors are all female -- and quite frankly, now I don't think I can imagine it any other way. The actual journey was historically significant, of course, but I have trouble believing that its straightforward particulars could capture my attention or imagination to the same degree. For me, Backhaus's method of telling the story becomes part of the story, which seems appropriate at a time when we're finally recognizing that we can't view history without taking into account the cultural problems inherent in doing so. Furthermore, although the play doesn't speak directly to the #metoo movement, in which women have begun demanding more opportunities to be heard, it certainly seems like a timely commentary.

Although several author interviews and theater reviews of this play are available, I've deliberately avoided both so they wouldn't influence my own experience of the work. I have, however, allowed myself to Google images from various productions after seeing MST's version, because I wanted to see how different groups handled the mechanics of boats navigating rapids and waterfalls on a one-set stage. Some productions use boats without bottoms that otherwise look fairly sturdy and complete, others use simple boat-shaped wooden frames, and still others go even more bare-bones -- Main Street Theater, for example, uses what looks like a semi-flexible hula-hoop tubing in an oval-shape that the actors climb (and fall) into and out of, and that "moves" with the river currents with a little help from the actors. Budding actors take note: those pantomime and movement classes are not a waste of time; how else can you make it look so believable that you're going over a waterfall while standing on a wooden floor?

[Celeste Roberts as John Wesley Powell and Candice D'Meza as O.G. Howland]

But back to the main question: why write this play for women actors? For me, the playwright's choice is not just a gimmick or novelty, but a truly original approach that bumps up the play's satiric elements. Yes, those men exhibited courage, loyalty, and dignity under difficult circumstances, but they also had that oh-so-male desire to pee on everything they saw, which in this case meant naming mountains and other landmarks after themselves, even though this fictional version of the expedition leader concedes that the area's native inhabitants were probably perfectly satisfied with their own names for things. To see women acting that way, when it's generally not quite as much in their inherent natures to do so, highlights just how ridiculous those uber-territorial instincts can be.

Another choice I truly enjoyed was the author's use of modern language. While Powell speaks with dramatic formality much of the time, as when "writing" one of the real-life explorer's journal entries, several of the younger characters employ every day slang and mannerisms, such as when Hall (Marissa Castillo) and Hawkins (Lydia Meadows) declare their vessel the entourage's "party boat." Another standout moment is when the expedition's lone Englishman, Frank Goodman (Shannon Emerick), shows no sign of understanding the irony of begging help from two very sarcastic Native Americans, played by Candice D'Meza and Mai Le in a couple of double-duty roles.

In the end, it comes down to choices, and I can't say I disagreed with any of them: the actors' gender, the fact that their costumes neither highlight nor disguise said gender, the modern-day language, the simple yet changeable set that changes from water to land based primarily on lighting.... I also enjoyed MST's individual casting, particularly Celeste Roberts as Major John Wesley Powell. Everything about her bearing said "leader" to me, even while he (she) remained quite human.

Men on Boats has several remaining performances through March 11, 2018. It took me fifteen years in Houston to find my way to Main Street Theater. If you haven't found your way there yet, this would be a great starting point.

Read more!