Somehow, the theatrical stage doesn’t seem quite the right venue for depicting a historic, path-finding river expedition of several hundred miles that includes countless rapids and waterfalls and that traverses the world’s largest canyon. But by leaving much to the playgoer’s imagination, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus came up with a solution in her play “Men on Boats.” She figured – what if we present the action without boats and without a river and with only rudimentary set and props? And just for fun, how about as a final conceit that we eliminate the men? So, there you have it – a cast of all females and non-binaries with bare-bones staging, and the curtain can be raised.
The year is 1869, and while a few Native American and small Mormon settlements exist in Southern Utah, the Colorado River, and its main tributary, the Green River, have not been successfully navigated and charted by the white man. President Ulysses S. Grant has commissioned his friend Major John Wesley Powell to lead an otherwise volunteer expedition of nine geographers and geologists to do just that. If your synapses are burning to link the Major with the manmade Lake Powell on the Colorado River, you have made the right connection. That still doesn’t tell you whether he completed the trip or if the expedition succeeded. You have to go to the play or read the history for that answer.
The first observation to make about the play, which is not a criticism, but an interesting bemusement, is the disorientation that may result from the playwright’s casting specification. The actors are predominately female females (word repetition borrowed from the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song”). The observer may be whipsawed between a) perceiving the action as truly an expedition of courageous women, and b) trying to push through that surface to grasp the men underneath who they represent. I even found myself making gender errors in my drafting this review. With swagger and a lowered voice, Mary Melnick as the one-armed Major Powell (just the body configuration you want for the grasp and balance needed to run rapids!) comes the closest to neutralizing the casting anomaly. But, of course, the whole idea is to create the tension of the untested.
The play merges adventure and drama with comedy. While vignettes often include at least one of those attributes, there are some that lack any of them, rendering those periods a bit slow. Among the best amalgams are the explorers confronting the most perilous challenges on the river. The four boats are represented by prows that are carried by the lead rower in each. As the men maneuver the hazards, boats and their contents are violently heaved and corkscrewed to the blood-curdling screams and flailing of crew against the indominable crashing of water and intransigeance of rocks. The viewer’s optimism that the boatsmen will conquer nature tempers the anxiety of the visual chaos with humor. That said, these recurring episodes did become a bit repetitious.
Some surprisingly subtle moments also occur. In what the movies call a reaction shot, the display of awe as the crew views the Grand Canyon after weeks of torment is quite touching. Later, and not knowing how far or how long they had to get through the canyon, provisions run low and risks run high. A splinter group led by the divisive William Dunn, played very demonstrably by Melissa Jones, reveals that they plan to leave the expedition by climbing out of the canyon to try to find a settlement. The humanity of the whole expedition party that shared danger and hardship but now divides in outlook is moving. Finally, the quiet is punctuated several times throughout with the haunting and penetrating acapella singing of Maria Mikheyenko, who plays Old Shady, the older brother of Major Powell.
Among the humorous incidents, Hawkins, as portrayed by the lively Katie O’Bryon Champlin, confronts his first ever hissing, coiling rattlesnake. Coffee pot in hand, he beats it to oblivion. Stepping away, he returns to obliterate it further. In a final return, he pulverizes it to make absolutely sure that the snake is dead beyond revival. This reviewer can verify from personal experience that the process Hawkins follows is absolutely authentic, except that a hoe is a much preferred weapon to a coffee pot.
While Palo Alto Players’ rendition of “Men on Boats” is not a perfect production of a perfect play, it does provide entertainment and stimulation. Give credit to Director Lee Ann Payne for her interpretation and execution. Apart from the immediacy of the camaraderie and challenges that the adventurers encounter, it provokes broader issues. One wonders how the play would compare with a male cast. Could it be as lighthearted? As sensitive? More importantly and in real life, one thinks about what it would have been like if women had the opportunity to mount such an expedition.
“Men on Boats” is written by Jaclyn Backhaus, produced by Palo Alto Players, and plays at Lucie Stern Community Center Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through February 20, 2022.