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ONSTAGE in Bedford

Powell – Laurie Collins
Old Shady – Sherry Etzel
Bradley – Araceli Radillo
Dunn – Monalisa Amidar
Sumner – Jeny Siddall
Hawkins – Lauren Kirkpatrick
Hall – Lynsey Hale
O.G. – Samantha Padilla
Seneca – Jocelyn Allgood
Goodman – Laura L. Jones

Director – Seth Johnson
Stage Manager – Olivia Dickerson
Costume Designer – Erika Durham
Set Designer – David Hance
Scenic Artist – TJ Firneno
Sound Designer – Kevin Brazil
Lighting Designer – Kristin M. Burgess
Prop Design – Dawn Blasingame
Master Carpenter – Jim Scroggins
Light Board Op – Adam Livingston
Sound Board Op – Kevin Brazil
Artistic Director – Michael B. Winters

Reviewed Performance: 8/18/2018

Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Onstage in Bedford’s decision to stage a challenging regional premiere of “Men On Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus has paid off in a memorable, exciting, and illuminating night of theatre. The night we saw the show, the company had engaged two ASL interpreters for hearing impaired patrons. It was fun to watch the interpreters keep up with the wild ride. It’s great to see this inclusivity of the deaf community and Onstage is to be commended.

“Men On Boats” is a raucous, fun ride down the Colorado River, exploring what will eventually be named the Grand Canyon. Set in 1869 and taking place nearly entirely on (as the name implies) the four small boats used by a bold team of explorers post-Civil War, the group navigates the Colorado River, replete with whirlpools, rapids, rocks and even a series of waterfalls. “Men On Boats” is a terrific, energetic night of theatre. It took a village to create the vivid constant illusion of riding along on those treacherous waters with the ten men (all played by women) who undertook this true wild west adventure.

The play is a delight, and Onstage in Bedford has done a fine job from the moment you walk into their comfortable small theatre to put you in the right mood for a rollicking adventure that requires a willing suspension of disbelief. There is not a bad seat in the house, and the placement of the cushy seats offers lots of leg room. As you enter the theatre, you also enter the immaculate sound design by Kevin Brazil boasting cleverly chosen period music. His intricate sound design continues throughout the piece, underscoring character monologues or providing the sound of the roaring rapids the cast must navigate. It lends much to the proceedings, as does the light design by Kristin M. Burgess. Her design shines when the characters must navigate a set of rapids. She also beautifully captures the red-tinted, outrageous beauty of the Grand Canyon at dawn in another key scene.

Set design by David Hance is artfully conceived, with geometric blocks defining what will become the Grand Canyon and the scenic artist responsible for rendering it, TJ Firneno has painted an intricate compass rose for the center of the stage, reminding us that these characters truly were exploring the unknown. The other key set pieces integral to the telling of this story are the cleverly designed four (later to become three, due to river mishaps) boats manned by the explorers. The design of these four boats allows the cast to step within them and manipulate them in careful orchestration across the stage. Director Seth Johnson creates vivid stage pictures for us throughout the show, and the many action sequences are well done. He keeps his nimble cast moving and cleverly uses the side wall of the theatre at one key point to great effect. His skillful staging is wonderfully fluid, and his choices to keep the props and set representational sync well with this gender-fluid script. Kudos for his diverse casting.

The all-female cast is a treat. They needed to be able to create sincerity in this challenging piece and all were honest in their approach to the character they inhabit. This is a physical piece of theatre. The actresses manhandle (no pun intended) their craft for much of the ninety-minute run time. Their ensemble work shines as they move and coast inside the boats on the river, calling out to each other in unison or as individuals as they swoop through the many dangers the river holds for them. This cast was called upon to be one unit while still giving us well-defined individual characters and they have succeeded.

This play was written for women to portray men intentionally, giving a depth to what could have become simple historic reenactment. The play also makes good use of modern vernacular to more clearly connect with its audience. Having women portray the men becomes a cunning commentary on manly men being manly, often to their detriment. The trap of this gender-bending could be that characters become caricatures, but this is avoided throughout most of the proceedings, except for one small encounter with Ute Indians that rang the only false notes of an excellent evening of theatre. This success is due to the actress’s utter commitment to their roles. They get a good assist from costuming by Erika Durham, which helps us delineate between the ten characters in the early going – from a British dandy on an adventure to a big-hat-wearing rough-and-ready explorer to a young Union soldier, his cap placed jauntily to one side. This is a wonderful ensemble, with most of the cast adept at the comedy inherent in women playing men’s roles. The prevailing humor of the play is balanced by admiration for what these men achieved. It’s made clear that the reason they succeeded where previous explorers failed was because this crew had the guts, gumption and will to do so.

The main character is the leader, Powell who in real life has a large man-made lake named after him above Hoover Dam. Laurie Collins plays the one-armed Powell with verve and yee-haw determination. Collins conveys a strong sense of leadership and makes great use of her bully pulpit, but also delivers lyrical descriptions of the “big canyon” beautifully. Collins’ physical comedy as she climbs the side of the Grand Canyon is hilarious and stood out as a highlight in a show full of wonderful moments.

Powell’s foil is the practical hunter/tracker Dunn, played with energy and grit by Monalisa Amidir. Dunn disagrees often with Powell’s decisions but is always overturned, lending a growing tension in their relationship which threatens to divide the party. Amidir does a great job in portraying a gruff man, but also inserts softness into her character as Dunn yearns to have some beautiful mountain or natural feature named after him.

Standouts in the cast include the ever-optimistic and fun Bradley, portrayed by Araceli Radillo with an enchanting smile and zest for adventure. We end up loving this young character. Her moments on the cliff with Powell are wonderfully comedic. Jeny Siddall as the gritty explorer Sumner who is in this adventure for the long haul is a wonderful actress. Siddall balances the play with a steady hand and a needed gravitas that reminds us that we are watching historical characters who truly lived this adventure. As the rich British explorer Goodman, Laura L. Jones does a good job in portraying a talkative man whose adventure becomes too dangerous for comfort.

Lauren Kirkpatrick plays the cook Hawkins with a broad sense of comedy, and her moments dealing with a snake are fun. “Twins” OG and Seneca are played by two actresses that look nothing alike, which lends much to the comedy they bring to their roles. Quieter roles are well represented as well. Old Shady played by Sherry Etzel is dimwitted but game for the adventure. She starts up many of the songs that are peppered throughout the show. Another quieter role is the mapmaker who surprises us with her zest for waterfalls, Hall. As played by Lynsey Hale, this character is always one your eye is drawn to, and the actress has wonderful stage presence throughout.

This cast is well supported by their strong director and design team, deftly bridging one hundred and fifty years to bring us a story of exploration and danger. They gleefully share this tale of historic courage and imbue the evening with the spirit of adventure. Their excellent work transports us, engages us, and above all entertains us in a wonderful piece of ensemble work that you surely do not want to miss.

Performance Dates: Aug 18-Sept 2nd
Friday/Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
Onstage in Bedford
2821 Forest Ridge Dr, Bedford TX 76021