By Michele Markarian
Men on Boats. Written by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, through October 7
My husband always accuses me of not liking history, but he’s wrong. It’s not the retelling of the past I find uninteresting, it’s history, experienced through men and their deeds. Women are part of this history, too, although not in ways that mainstream books and coursework deem important. Maybe that’s why girls are drawn to the “Little House” books – history experienced through the eyes of a woman.
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus deals with history in her own way. Backhaus tells the true story of ten explorers, the first white men to set out on an expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in search of a large canyon in the year 1869. They are lead by a one-armed commander, John Wesley Powell (Robin Javonne Smith). Backhaus’s script stipulates that the cast should be comprised of people who are not cisgender white males …”racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender conforming”. Which, in my opinion, is great for these actors, who wouldn’t normally get cast in mainstream, historical drama. That said, the casting doesn’t add or detract from the turbulent journey, which, though beautifully staged, is only marginally compelling.
Powell and his men suffer tremendous setbacks – boats are capsized, one is completely destroyed, supplies are lost to the river. At several points in the journey, parties break off, and at the end of the 100-minute performance, only six members of the original group survive to see the expedition through.
Backhaus peppers her dialogue with modern day colloquialisms, which the cast is adept at delivering. As Powell, Robin LaVonne Smith has a still, commanding presence that works well for the role. Veronika Duerr is droll and compelling as William Dunn, the explorer whose obvious friendship with Powell doesn’t mean that he agrees with Powell’s commands. Hayley Spivey brings a naïve eagerness to the role of Bradley, a member of the crew. Lyndsay Allyn Cox is excellent as the tough O.G., who is accused of pinching tobacco from the camp. Mal Malme is hilarious as Old Shady – Mal’s deadpan delivery of Old Shady’s songs are priceless.
Jenna McFarland’s set, sprawling across the length of the stage, finely conveys the spirit of the West. Dawn Simmons’s direction is engaging and dynamic, quieter moments balancing well against harrowing ones. The actors simulate boats on the rapids so well that at one point I gasped out loud. And there is a clever scene with a snake that managed to be both funny and frightening.
At an hour and forty minutes with no intermission, “Men in Boats” could stand to be pared down by ten to fifteen minutes. (An intermission wouldn’t work, as there is an ebb and flow to the piece that an interruption in the action wouldn’t feel natural). “This was unusual,” said my friend when we left the theater, and yes, it was. Theater is a risky business, and hats off to Speakeasy Stage for accomplishing this. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/