MEN ON BOATS
By Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Noah Putterman
Assistant Director – Sarah Gay
Stage Manager – Megan Beddingfield*
Assistant Stage Manager –Katreeva Phillips*
Light and Sound Board – Kyle Ward
Master Carpenter – Rick Morrison
Carpenter – Grant Morrison
Wardrobe – Sharon Standard
Scenic Artist – Christina McCorrmick
Jordan Desmarais – Seneca Howland/Bishop
Ellen Eberhardt** – John Colton Sumner
Gazelle Garcia** – Old Shady
Giovanna Grimaldo – O.G. Howland/Tsauwiat
Chris Herrero** – Hawkins
Rachel Macknight** – Hall
Camille Monae* – John Wesley Powell
Nicole Neely** – Bradley
Dana Schultes* – Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa
Octavia Thomas** – William Dunn
* Member of Actor’s Equity Association
** Equity Membership Candidate
Reviewed Performance: 10/20/2018
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Men on Boats, written by up-and-coming playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, is a fresh and original recounting of the 1869 historic expedition of one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell, who commanded the first government survey of the Grand Canyon.
Director Noah Putterman’s Notes recite the playwright’s direction that, “The characters in Men on Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not.” That works. The play is infused with humor, and the trials and tribulations of grizzled explorers may well be funnier as played by actors who are not cisgender males. The play also explores the nature of storytelling and our inherently limited understanding of historic events. As with any piece of history that we cannot possibly know firsthand, it should be understood that the story is an attenuated version of what actually happened. The historically non-conforming cast is consistent with the play’s humorous anachronistic elements, as for example occasional modern dialogue and tunes.
Major Powell is a case study in leadership. How did he command a ground-breaking expedition of the Grand Canyon with only man-powered boats and one arm? To tell this story, Men on Boats explores human nature and group dynamics. As Powell, Camille Monae finely calibrates the character’s every move and expression, and conveys, often without words, the depth of Powell’s internal resources. As an actor able to telegraph internal mental states with just her eyes, Monae is well cast here. Monae’s Powell does not dignify infighting by turning around, but rather calmly dictates how and why the participants should not disturb him with their pettiness. Powell name-drops his friendship with the President as necessary, but otherwise relies on his unparalleled experience and his seemingly limitless courage and grit. When Powell takes the proverbial high road, valiantly rising about his own self-interest, it is not a surprise.
This is a story about a group of people struggling to survive. The play takes the audience through a variety of action-packed perils one would expect from Wild West exploration. The physical ordeals depicted require synchronicity as the cast re-creates harrowing river runs through rapids and over falls. The many dangers are often portrayed with humor. This production earns laughs out of characters hanging on rocks for dear life, or escaping the bite of venomous snakes through the lethal employment of kitchen wares.
We are being told a story, and our part in receiving the story is to fill in gaps with our own imagination. The play depends on pantomime, with frequent and effective lighting changes directing the audience toward the action. Sound effects queue elements the audience must imagine, as for example the crackling of a campfire. Circle Theatre does a great job with the technical elements of this production.
Every cast member renders a strong performance. As Old Shady, Gazelle Garcia achieves hilarity in a single look. As the flamboyant cook Hawkins, Chris Hererro is a humorous scene-stealer. As Sumner, Ellen Eberhardt is a virtuoso in comic timing. Octavia Thomas is a commanding Dunn. Each cast member pulls their weight fantastically.
Circle Theatre’s production of this innovative play is artistically exquisite. The set presents a slice of the Grand Canyon, replete with three dimensional striations. When the cast enters, the audience is treated to a visually sumptuous scene reminiscent of a great American painting of the Wild West. The set, lighting, and costume design all coalesce, and the effect is a harmonious color palette of crimson and azure tones. Every piece of clothing and every prop meticulously conform to the visual effect of a masterpiece painting of the Wild West come to life. In addition to being beautiful, this effect is topical considering that landscape painters contributed to romanticizing exploration of the American West. The character of Frank Goodman, touchingly played by Dana Schultes, joined the expedition out of a mistaken sense of romanticized adventure.
The script at times is didactic in an effort not to misrepresent history. Europeans did not “discover” the American West, were inferior stewards of the land, and their adventures can be fairly characterized as reckless. Personally, I applaud this assiduous avoidance of glorifying history, although I wonder whether the script in a few isolated instances ventures a tad too far in the direction of preachy.
Over all, Circle Theatre’s production of Men on Boats is thought-provoking, funny, and visually gorgeous, and each actor delivers a fantastic performance. I recommend this production most strongly for theater goers who value originality and innovation.
MEN ON BOATS
October 18 – November 17, 2018
230 West 4th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
For information and Tickets call 817-877-3040 or go to https://www.circletheatre.com/men-on-boats.