Regional Reviews: Boston
Men on Boats
Also see Sarah's review of Ideation
In her lively new play Men on Boats, which opened at SpeakEasy Stage Company this past week, Jaclyn Backhaus sees Powell's expedition through the eyes of the people it excluded. By the playwright's mandate, Powell and his white male compatriots must be cast with racially diverse actors who identify as female, transgender, or non-gender-conforming. It's a deft reclamation of a time when white men went boldly in search of new frontiers, seizing land for their own society in the name of manifest destiny. Powell's team set off just after the Civil War, when women had little agency in society to go exploringor even to vote. Slavery had been abolished only four years earlier, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. So, while the play closely adheres to the facts of Powell's real-life endeavors, we are confronted with the inequity of American exceptionalism. But we also experience the joy of an alternate history, where opportunity was given to all.
It's "a whole country, built on the idea of newness," as Powell describes it. A former Civil War Major, Powell leads a ten-man team (including his own brother) through present-day Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona until they finally reach the Grand Canyon, previously unexplored by white Americans. Along the way, two boats are damaged, tempers flare, and rations become scarce. But Powell is determined to see his mission to its end.
In a smart running comedy bit, Powell and fellow explorer William Dunn recite the unwritten rules of who can name a new landmark after himself. Rule #1: You must be the sole discoverer. Yet, when Dunn finally gets his namesake (a cliff), Powell muses on the Native American tribes living on this land, who've all known about the cliff longer than these new adventurers. Backhaus's characters often take this contemporary tact, expressing sentiments larger than their own worldview. They also enjoy plenty of modern cursing and anachronistic turns of phrase; one vessel is nicknamed the "party boat."
At times, the balance of 19th-century adventure and 21st-century commentary threatens to tip too far. The characters are sometimes megaphones for lessons we should learn, as if we wouldn't get the point unless it is stated baldly. This surfaces in the final monologue, delivered by an outsider to the mission, that's didactic and lecturing instead of an authentic character moment. There's also a strange encounter with a Native American man and woman in stereotypical costuming that feels unwise, with no Native American actors present to play them.
But on the whole, Backhaus's play entertains under Dawn M. Simmons' confident direction. The actors do the heavy lifting (literally, given the boats they carry), playing their real-life counterparts honestly, without winking and nodding at us. They play off each other in assured rhythm as they forge rapids and waterfalls, using nothing but wooden frames and their own physicality to summon the push and pull of the river.
Stand-outs in the cast include the droll Lyndsay Allyn Cox as O.G. Howland, often the most outspoken of the crew; Hayley Spivey as Bradley, irresistible as the youngest and peppiest explorer; and Bridgette Hayes as John Colton Sumner, a real firecracker who brings a lot of heart and humor to her scenes. As John Wesley Powell, Robin JaVonne Smith has a firm but warm command over the others. She conveys the instincts of a natural leader: a surety and guiding sense of moral purpose.
They are aided by a multipurpose set designed by Jenna McFarland Lord that reminded me of a playground pirate ship; washes of oranges and blues from lighting designer Daisy Long; and Simmons' adept hand at giving everyone the space to fill in the blanks.
With a little imagination, the playwright and the director suggest, this world is ours for the exploring. By bringing the voices of marginalized Americansthen and nowcenter stage, Men on Boats becomes a rallying cry. We still have work to do to tell everyone's story.
Men on Boats is presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through October 7, 2017, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at speakeasystage.com, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the Boston Center for the Arts box office.