Fort Worth — Utah, 1869: Ten men, four boats (to start with, anyway), a brewing mutiny, and a dangerous journey through uncharted territory. In Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats, it’s both beside the point, and simultaneously the entire point, that not one of the titular “men” in the titular boats in question is portrayed by a cisgender male actor. This edict from the playwright regarding casting frames the question at the heart of the piece: how does our perception of history change when the voices telling that story change? Director Noah Putterman, along with a talented, diverse cast, keeps a light hand on the wheel of Circle Theatre’s production of the piece, fostering a loose, funny atmosphere that’s essentially the sugar that helps the medicine go down; it’s easy to forget the politics when a show’s this fun.
The play focuses on a little-known footnote in American history—the 1869 expedition, led by Major John Wesley Powell, to map the rivers and tributaries leading to the Grand Canyon. Over a ten month period, the men of the expedition journeyed downstream from Wyoming through Colorado, Utah and Arizona, becoming the first white travelers to definitively map the area (which was, naturally, well-known to the indigenous Americans who lived there). Raised in Arizona, Backhaus heard tales of this expedition in her youth, and, stumbling on Major Powell’s journal as an adult, was excited by the challenge of portraying the sort of high-adrenaline adventures Powell described onstage—battling whitewater rapids, fending off rattlesnakes, and careening down waterfalls.
Following this expedition, Powell, a former teacher, then a soldier with a distinguished military career, would go on to become not only the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey but the Director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute. The nine other men on the expedition—John Colton Sumner, William H. Dunn, Walter H. Powell (Major Powell’s brother), George Y. Bradley, Oramel and Seneca Howland, Frank Goodman, William Hawkins, and Andrew Hall—are a sort of footnote to a footnote; the men from the expedition who survived (no spoilers) faded quickly into poverty and obscurity. It was Powell’s name that would live on, his story that would be told—after all, he was the one writing it.
But, in the end, as the play slyly references, the expedition itself was a bit of a performance—not only had the area been traversed by the Native Americans of the region for decades if not centuries, other white explorers and travelers had passed that way as well. It was merely that the government commissioned this expedition that gave it the false distinction of being the first to blaze the trail. So the swagger of the show’s “men” is performative in more ways than one, as the play explores 19th-century mores in 21st-centurty vernacular, layers and layers of privilege and power—the expedition overwrites the non-white explorers who came before, while the stories of Powell’s men are eclipsed by Powell, a man of a higher social strata, while the men of this time are all portrayed by modern actors who, in a myriad of ways, represent voices that oftentimes lack the privilege and power of their white, cisgender contemporaries.
All that and it’s funny, too. Circle Theatre’s cast pulls together in a remarkable ensemble performance, giving each character their own life and weight, but never allowing the piece to be weighed down by its politics—it’s always subtext, not text. The script requires an extreme level of synchronization, both verbally and physically, from the actors as they portray the men’s struggles on the water, and they rise to the occasion with aplomb—any fears that the action on the water would seem silly are quickly dispensed with. As the redoubtable Major Powell, Camille Monae manages to convey the two sides of the man—both a teacher and a soldier—with an easygoing, slightly detached grace. She also foregrounds Powell’s fierce determination not to be held back by disability—he lost an arm in the Civil War—in some lovely physical acting. Octavia Y. Thomas as the mutinous William Dunn, who eventually backs out of the expedition, has excellent chemistry with Monae as the two spar over control of their little band of men. Dana Schultes, well-known on the local scene especially by devotees of Stage West, where she’s the Executive Producer, has a small, but meaty role as Frank Goodman, a wealthy Englishman of Yorkshire extraction (her accent work is impressive) who joined the expedition on a lark, but who finds himself second-guessing his decision as the danger increases. A scene that finds Frank alone on a riverbank absolutely succeeds or fails based on the actor, and Schultes nails it.
Jordan Desmarais and Giovanna Grimaldo are a lot of fun in dual roles—first, as the gruff, intense Howland Brothers (Seneca and O.G., respectively), then as hilariously deadpan Native Americans fielding a request for aid and supplies from Powell and his men. Ellen Eberhardt’s Sumner plays mostly for laughs, though has some convincingly distraught moments when the expedition seems to be breaking apart. As the inscrutable Old Shady (Powell’s older brother for dramatic purposes, seemingly—in reality, Walter Powell was the younger brother), Gazelle Garcia displays impeccable comic timing for their few lines, and their rendition of a Lady Gaga-influenced ditty about fish was a lovely moment of absurdism. Chris Herrero and Rachel Macknight, crew of the self-described “party boat,” are a fantastic comedic duo. Herrero’s Hawkins is a scene-stealer, putting fabulous spin on some of the play’s better lines (of the Howland Brothers, they say disdainfully, “Who was their mother? Why wasn’t she a more discerning person?”). And Nicole Neely’s Bradley, the youngest and most enthusiastic of the crew, brings an endearingly puppyish energy to the character; a scene where Bradley must mount a rescue of Powell, whose determination not to let his disability limit him has left him in a precarious position, was a standout for both actors.
The play’s set design (from Clare Floyd DeVries), while somewhat evocative of roadrunners, coyotes, and crates of dynamite, makes a fair stab at conveying the grandeur of the landscape described by Powell and his men—orange rock walls wrap around the theatre space, centered on an almost too-blue river. Although past productions have opted to use some type of at least partial boat structure, Circle opted to utilize only barrels and stools as seats while letting the actors convey the rest; this was almost certainly the right decision, given the limitations of space. The costumes (designed by Amy Poe) are convincingly lived-in and detailed, and special mention should be made of Major Powell’s costume, which was expertly fitted to allow the actress to keep her arm concealed beneath it without looking unbearably awkward. Covers, both sung and instrumental, of various pop songs are scattered throughout the show (courtesy of music consultant Parker Greenwood), transmuted into a more period-appropriate sound—banjoes abound—and the effect is an appealing mish-mash of past and present.
Circle Theatre’s production of Men on Boats is a funny and relevant piece of work, and appeals on a number of levels, despite or because of its politics—bring to it what you will, both the journey and the destination are well worth your time.