'Men On Boats' at ACT Has Fun Experimenting With Retelling History
by Jay Barmann
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus says that she grew up in Arizona flipping through her dad’s copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 journal from a government-sponsored expedition to map the Green and Colorado Rivers, and the Grand Canyon. She loves adventure stories, but she realized as she began writing a play about this expedition that this was a story that she as a woman would never have been able to participate in. The resulting play, Men on Boats, features an all-female cast, only the suggestion of actual boats, and a hefty dose of movement and stagecraft meant to spark the imagination and transport us through river rapids 150 years ago.
The task set for director Tamilla Woodard is no small one. The new production at ACT’s Strand Theater — the play’s Bay Area premiere — takes a cast of 10 women all playing men who ranged in age and were mostly either seasoned mountain men, Civil War veterans, or both, and sets them out in the wilderness of the American west on four boats. Much of the drama of the story is not interpersonal, but practical — should we run this rapid or walk the boats along the shore? will we reach an adequate site to camp before nightfall? do we have enough to eat? But Backhaus creates tension between the characters through mundane events like an accusation of filched tobacco. And much of the pleasure and hilarity in the piece comes in the ensemble’s artful, physical pantomime of navigating the river itself. (Liz Sklar does fine work as the one-armed commander of the mission, John Wesley Powell, and Arwen Anderson deserves special praise for her physical comedy and wink-wink naïveté as the Englishman adventurer Frank Goodman).
Despite the casting of all women, as is dictated in the script, this isn’t a piece that spends a lot of time focused on gender. The audience is meant to question how these white men conducted themselves in this situation, and on lands that had been inhabited for generations by Native Americans whom they all but ignore. There is an obsession with mapping and naming this territory for the white man, and the actual execution of the expedition seems bumbling and inept. A light is shined on the characters’ ineptitude when they veer off course briefly to ask a favor of a Native American couple, who in turn respond with dry sarcasm that “the government” should have sent this group out into the wilderness without adequate provisions or a contingency plan. It’s a hilarious moment that feels like the comedic center of the play, and points to Backhaus’s not-so-subtle agenda in telling this story in this way.
Contemporary idioms and dialogue are used throughout, adding another layer of humor to this period piece. And if the play has any obvious flaw, it’s that some of these efforts at jokes can feel a bit too on the nose or trying-too-hard — and Woodard’s direction can veer into over-the-top territory very easily.
Overall, Men on Boats is a lively, fun, and original piece that reminds us why ACT needed a smaller house in the first place — a place to produce odd and envelope-pushing work that doesn’t quite fit on the grand Geary Theater proscenium. Nina Ball’s clever, map-inspired set design also makes terrific use of the small stage.
It’s also an intriguing window into the kind of work that ACT promises to present in the months and years ahead under new artistic director Pam MacKinnon. MacKinnon served on the board of a small company she helped found in New York, Clubbed Thumb, which first developed Men on Boats, and she says that the play “reminds me that the word ‘play’ is a verb to be activated, wrestled with, and enjoyed.”