I saw Men on Boats at Bridgewater College as a participating production for KCACTF. It was fantastic.
The script tells the story of the Powell Expedition, while asking questions about the typical story, which, of course, we only have from Powell himself. One cool thing about this script is that the playwright, Jaclyn Backhaus, said that she was working on the script and feeling kind of weird about the fact that someone who looked like her couldn’t play basically any of the roles in it. So she added a note that no cis, white men could be cast in it. Call it the Hamilton effect, but seeing it staged by so many wonderful and different faces, it rose above the gimmick it could have been.
Some of the gender swapping, in particular, raises questions on what it means to be a man. In one great moment, a snake shows up in the camp and any pretense of manliness evaporated. I had to imagine that this would have happened just this way for the actual men, too.
The script does an interesting job of blending the language of the 19th century, sometimes quoting from Powell’s journal, with very modern words. In one exchange, when the last bit of bacon goes overboard, one line is something like, “It truly is a grievous loss, as it was our last ration. What the actual shit, Howland?!” The juxtaposition is hilarious and humanizing.
The night that I went, they had a talk before the show by a man who is a rafting guide and historian, an expert in the Powell expedition. That dramaturgical background aided my appreciation of the show, I think. He raised a lot of interesting questions about whose story gets told–ones that the playwright also asks.
The production was really cool. The set consisted of a few ladders that became boats and a cliff face. There was a backdrop with a projection of 19th-Century drawings of the Grand Canyon. They were designed with incredible subtlety. I know that they were changing, but I never saw them change. The floor was painted with swirls to suggest rapids.
All of the “special effects” were created by actors…acting. They did some amazing movement work to tell the story of navigating rapids, including someone going overboard and rolling off the stage. In another scene, an actor is hanging in deadly peril off a cliff face–two feet, at most, above the floor. I believed every minute.
My only regret was that I saw it on closing night–I wanted to tell everyone I knew to go see it.