The Fort Collins production may not have men or boats, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
OpenStage Theatre’s production of Men on Boats has neither men, nor boats. In fact, within playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’s casting notes, she states that it’s a piece for “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid, and/or non-gender conforming.”
But there’s no reason to feel misled or tricked by the title. The entirely non-cis, non-male cast does have oars to maneuver their imaginary boats down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Big Canyon (later to be known as the Grand Canyon). There are also huge projections in the background of the stage — roaring white water, deep canyons and giant rock formations to make you feel like you’re navigating those uncharted rivers right along with John Wesley Powell (Kate Austin-Gröen) and his crew as they make their way through virgin western territory on an expedition to map the rivers.
Men on Boats is the mostly true story of Powell’s 1869 expedition. Much of this play is based on Powell’s carefully kept journals (published after the expedition as The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.) Throughout the play, we see Powell writing in the journal at various campsites after long, dangerous days on the river.
Not your typical travelogue
This is a tongue-in-cheek account of the very real journey. At times I wondered if I was missing anything by not knowing any of the real history surrounding the expedition. And while I think history buffs would love it and perhaps glean a bit more out of it, one needn’t know all the historical background to enjoy this show.
The non cis male cast allows the masculinity that was all the rage in the 1860s to be made light of. Here you have 10 men (on boats), each trying to prove their worth by performing feats of strength. Flip flop that, make them all non cis males playing cis men’s roles and laughter ensues.
One particularly “manly” scene involving a snake or two, and the non-binary cast injects humor that might not otherwise have been there. Throughout the play, other subtleties and humor are abundant, including power struggles on and off the boats; fighting over who gets to name which peak or rock formation; and an ongoing battle of when to call it quits.
With a cis male cast, one would wonder whether to laugh or not. With a non-binary cast, one simply laughs, out loud and often.
One could argue that the absence of cis males is why the cast gels so well together. With 10 actors starting out in four boats, we have a variety of characters. William Dunn (Shannon Nicole Light) is second in command to Powell, yet thinks he should be first. William Hawkins (Heather Ostberg Johnson) is the always-suspicious cook questioning the whereabouts of O.G Howland (Maya Jairam) because he thinks he’s smoking more than his share of the tobacco rations. The humor and timing between these actors in spot-on.
There’s strong language making this play not necessarily suited for young children (though there were a few in the theater with me). There’s also no intermission, so be prepared for a 90 minute ride down a raging river with none of the nightly breaks the crew earned.