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Theatre in Review: Men on Boats (Clubbed Thumb/Playwrights Horizons)

Photo: Elke Young

The title of Jaclyn Backhaus' new play isn't especially accurate: Men on Boats features no men and only the barest representations of boats. Yes, this historical comedy focuses on the explorer John Wesley Powell's 1869 Colorado River expedition, a several-months-long journey that was marred by severe deprivation and death. (Three members of the group disappeared and were never found.) It sounds like the stuff of a rugged action film, and indeed it was the basis of the 1960 epic Ten Who Dared, starring such sagebrush cinema veterans as Brian Keith, James Drury, and Ben Johnson.

However, Backhaus states in her author's notes, "The characters in Men on Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I'm talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming." Also non-conforming is the dialogue, which is intentionally anachronistic and marked by a sketch-comedy sensibility. So Powell, played by Kelly McAndrew, confers with the hunter/trapper William Dunn (Kristen Sieh) about naming a nearby mountain. Dunn's suggestions: "Dunn Mountain. Mount Dunn. Craggy Range. Volcano of Dunn." Frank Goodman (Birgit Huppuch), an increasingly reluctant British member of the company, catches some fish, then muses, "If only I had a crisp Muscadet." Dreaming of summers in France, he adds, "People don't risk death in Provence, other than trying a strange bouillabaisse."

When the men grumble about having lost their supplies in some very rough rapids, Powell seizes the opportunity to engage in a little one-upmanship, noting that his crew members have joined up for various reasons, adding ferociously, "You know why I'm here? I'm here because my friend, the fucking President of the United States, needed a better knowledge of the arid lands of this nation." That shuts them up. The author has also apparently decided that the word "portage" is a sure laugh-getter, working it into as many lines as possible. ("I didn't want to portage because it was impossible to portage that section of the river." "You didn't want to portage because you're useless when we portage.") Each of the actresses gives special stress to the word, as if sheer repetition will cause hilarity to erupt. Of course, the word appears so often because so much of Men on Boats consists of the actresses, standing inside cut-out frames of boats -- there were four on the expedition -- howling and making wild gestures while Jane Shaw's excellent sound design delivers a series of highly evocative effects associated with riding the rapids.

Whatever Backhaus was going for, Men on Boats spends much of its time on verbal gags that don't quite land and multiple instances of cast members engaging in pretend acts of derring-do, trying to keep their boats afloat, pretending to reach out for each other at dizzying heights, and clutching at the mountains depicted in the photo images of rock cliffs that decorate the walls of Arnulfo Maldonado's set. These sequences, not terribly amusing in themselves, become wearying when spread out over an hour and forty minutes of running time. There are occasional hints of a larger purpose, including mild swipes at the concept of Manifest Destiny and comments on the vagaries of history. (There is a telling moment near the end when the others realize that Powell alone will enter the historical record, the rest of them facing obscurity and misfortune.) And there is the whole women-playing-men thing, an attempt (I suppose) at deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity, a shooting fish in a barrel exercise that requires more effort than it is worth. The play finds a sharply satirical point of view only briefly, in a sequence featuring Powell's meeting with Tasauwiat, chief of the Ute Indians, and his wife, The Bishop, played with deadpan glee by Hannah Cabell and Danaya Esperanza. When Powell takes note of their fluent command of English, the following exchange takes place:

The Bishop: We learned a long time ago. When we started land negotiations with white people.

Powell: Oh wow. Cool.

The Bishop: Yeah it was cool. They let us keep our birth lands, so we were pretty stoked.

Tasauwiat: Yeah we were pretty stoked, yeah. "The Generosity," you know?

The glassy smiles that complete this exchange speak volumes, hilariously.

The rest of the time, however, Men on Boats is a trip without a clear destination, an exercise in storytelling devices that have seemingly captivated the playwright, leaving her with little else to say. Under Will Davis' direction, which at least sustains a coherent performance, everyone acts gamely, with McAndrew proving particularly convincing as Powell and Huppuch carving out a distinctive comic cameo as Goodman, who is the first to bolt from the trip in search of creature comforts. Maldonado's set makes a strong impression, giving us a sense of the pitiless terrain through the company travels; however, Solomon Weisbard's lighting depends heavily on backlighting and footlighting effects that often leave one wishing for better coverage of the actresses' faces. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes sometimes seem a little dressy for men living rough in uncharted territory, but they do the very necessary job of individualizing each character, something the script doesn't always adequately manage.

Men on Boats ends with a surprise twist I won't reveal, which leads to the rather melancholy conclusion suggesting that, except for Powell, the others endured great hardship for little personal satisfaction. By the end of the play, I knew how they felt. -- David Barbour

(12 August 2016)

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