No men. No boats. No man-splaining.
That’s part of the concept of the high-energy and low testosterone of Jaclyn Backhaus’ adventure saga, Men on Boats. All the roles in John Wesley Powell’s expedition through the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River (celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2019) are played by women and non-binary people. Baltimore Center Stage goes further with a director and artistic team whose identities mirror that of the cast.
An estrogen halo has been cast over the Grand Canyon, as it were, and history is livelier for it. The spirited ensemble cast seems to glory in manspreading on rocks, chest-bumping, spitting, cussing, fussing and feuding as they paddle imaginary boats through the rapids, waterfalls and submerged boulders of the Colorado River.
While the danger of the expedition is always present, hijinks and celebrating the rootin’-tootin’ oddness of the characters rules this play. Everything about the production—from the super-saturated colors of Stephanie Osin Cohen’s Grand Canyon set to the blazing lighting by Stacey Derosier and the patchwork brightness of Hahnji Jang’s costumes, is clamorous and about as subtle as a whack with a frying pan.
The characters are stock Western archetypes: the vainglorious pioneer John Wesley Powell (Ceci Fernandez), his stoic and capable sidekick John Colton Sumner (Patrena Murray), contentious second-in-command William Dunn (Jessica Ranville), the eccentric cook Hawkins (Sara Porkalob), the lone wolf Shady (Haruna Lee) the young recruit Bradley (Elena Urdanela), dedicated mapmaker Hall (Kai Heath), pip-pip cheerio British explorer Frank Goodman (Natalie Woolams-Torres), and the taciturn brothers O.G. (Keren Lugo) and Seneca (Eileen Rivera) Howland.
Having women and non-binary actors in these parts adds odd humor, jeering satire and womanly generosity to what could have been a straightforward, male-centric recounting of manifest destiny in the American West.
By taking the “man” out of manifest destiny, history is reframed.
In Haruna Lee’s hands, Shady is a magnetic weirdo, a Debbie Downer who launches into campfire songs at dinner that always end badly. Ceci Fernandez’s Powell is a born leader, but also a romantic—sort of like George Sand, with both a quill pen and a pistol. Keren Lugo’s O.G. and Eileen Rivera’s Seneca deadpan harrowing incidents from their childhood that makes them anything but victims and the pair are exquisitely droll in other roles as they throw shade on the expedition as “been there, done that” Native Americans. Sara Porkalob is both a proud culinary master and so intense it’s a little scary as Hawkins, while Patrena Murray embodies the still strength of a brave hero.
Men on Boats closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
I’m probably going to have to forfeit my ovaries for saying this, but I am not quite sold on what this woman and non-binary reimagining of American history brings to the table. Is the playwright saying that history is subjective, and the appropriation of lands and people a male-powered myth, so why not subvert the narrative and see what happens? Or that there are so many women and non-binary people’s stories lost to history, as well as those of indigenous Americans, why not take the white man’s stories over and use them to show what has been erased or just plain ignored?
They are compelling concepts for a play, but the Center Stage production, under the energetic direction of Jenny Koons, falls flat on several levels. Everything is played for har-dee-har-har slapstick laughs and the forced heartiness and jollity gets old after a while. And for a comedy-satire that promises the gift of laughter, you may chuckle here and there but no audience member should fear the danger of busting a gut. Actors should never strain so hard at being rollicking.
Men on Boats is loud and gleeful in its unapologetic placing of women and non-binary people front and center on the stage and in the pages of history. You just wish for a little less strain and a little more flow.
Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus . Director: Jenny Koons. Featuring: Ceci Fernandez, Kai Heath, Haruna Lee, Keren Lugo, Patrena Murray. Sara Porkalob. Jessica Ranville. Eileen Rivera, Elena Urdanela, Natalie Woolams-Torres.Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen. Costume Designer: Hahnji Jang. Lighting Designer: Stacey Derosier. Sound Designer/Original Music: Elisheba Ittoop. Production Stage Manager: Ruth Anne Watkins. Resident Stage Manager: Danielle Teague-Daniels. Stage Manager: Danielle Zandri. Assistant Stage Managers: Cathy Hwang and Josie R. Fell. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.