By Sheila Barth
BOX INFO: Almost two-hour, one act gender-flipping play by Jaclyn Backhaus, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through Oct. 7: Wednesday,Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.;Sunday, 3 p.m.; also Oct. 5, 2 p.m., Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St.,Boston. Tickets start at $25; senioor, age 25-under, college students with ID, discounts. SpeakEasyStage.com. 617-482-3279.
Either you like it, or you don’t.
While Jaclyn Backhaus’ gender-flipping, time-bending, play, “Men on Boats,” has garnered public and media praise, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s season-opening, almost two-hour, one-act production doesn’t reflect this theater company’s usual outstanding performances.
Press information touts “MEN ON BOATS” as “a rollicking adventure tale brought thrillingly to life by a gender-bending cast of diverse performers who use carefully exaggerated theatrics to tell the story of an actual 1869 expedition led by John Wesley Powell to chart the Colorado River “
It continues: “Comical but never camp, pointed but never political, this rousing historical saga is a provocative meditation on gender and historical memory that offers a new lens through which to view our shared past.”
Sounds good, right? Some theatergoers thought the play is incisive and a riot. Female actors portray historic male roles, some with swaggers, authoritative voices, others with humility, enacting John Wesley Powell leading four small boats down the Colorado River, per US president’s order. Powell’s goal is to discover and chart jaw-dropping, exciting, previously unexplored territory – namely, awesome Grand Canyon.
Their escapades – maneuvering through dangerous, destructive white water rapids, portaging over rough terrain, encountering snakes – and eating them – losing boats, supplies, food, and nearly some lives while challenging waterfalls and other unforeseen natural elements, is, exciting history in the making.
Backhaus bases her information on one-armed explorer-adventurer-expedition leader Maj. John Wesley Powell’s copious journal entries, but she creates a timeless, genderless, tongue-in-cheek, bird’s-eye view of the journey and its motley participants.
Sailing down the Colorado River, between designer Jenna McFarland Lord’s majestic, craggy cliffs, 10 “men” in four boat-shaped frames stomp and stride, curve and row, facing and avoiding bends, rocks, and other dangers in the river. Their clothing, thanks to costume designer Rachel Padula Shufelt, is indicative of their personas- from swaggering, virile adventurer, to suit-and-tie clad gentleman; overall-clad youth to seedy-looking,Civil War vet Old Shady,(Mal Malme), Powell’s simple-minded brother. Two non-conventional, wise-cracking Indians along the trail make it clear Powell’s party isn’t the first white men they’ve encountered or bartered with.
Portraying Powell, Robin JaVonne Smith is stalwart, straight-backed, and commanding. William Dunn (Veronika Duerr) recites the rules of naming unchartered landmarks after himself, and enjoys doing so. “You might even get a manmade lake named after you,” Dunn quips to Powell.
Hayley Spivey is bright-eyed and eager, portraying 19-year-old Bradley; and after timid British adventurer Goodman (Cody Sloan) becomes injured, he decides to drop out. Ellie Van Amerongen, Bridgette Hayes, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Ally Dawson, and Alice Kabia round out this all-female cast, who are supposed to be comical, not camp, yet some members overact, their voices and physicality oozing faux virility.
Although playwright Backhaus’ goals in “Men on Boats” are lofty and laudatory, I think the play falls short, becoming waterlogged in its attempts at theatrical improvisation and dialogue cleverness.