Review: Men on Boats



One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell (Claire Gresham) leads an expedition on the Colorado River in Men on Boats. - PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS
  • One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell (Claire Gresham) leads an expedition on the Colorado River in Men on Boats.

History is written by the winners and sometimes exaggerated and mythologized beyond that.

The Grand Canyon has several geographical landmarks named for members of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition, which explored the Green and Colorado rivers for the U.S. Government, but none of the men are household names.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats dramatizes the expedition, and her premise of using an all-woman cast helps her recount the exploration of the unmapped frontier in a different light. The NOLA Project is presenting the show at Lusher Charter School’s Lion's Gate Theater through April 7.

Powell (Claire Gresham) was a one-armed veteran of the Civil War who spent post-war years exploring the expanses of the West. He’s a confident and adventurous leader when facing the unknown and level-headed in managing the group. Some of the men also are veterans of the Civil War, and Bradley (Keyara Milliner) is just 19 years old. Goodman (Kali Russell) is an odd Brit, who doesn’t seem sturdy enough for the journey, though the actual Goodman was hired for his skill with boats.

The cast has little more than large oars to help them evoke the crew’s four boats and the roaring river. The action is vibrantly choreographed, with the actors rushing down rapids, leaning hard into turns to avoid rocks and occasionally having a boat upended, leaving the men spinning and flailing in the water. There are otherwise minimal sets and props, but light and sound design are effective in setting many scenes.

Men on Boats is not a comedy, but it has plenty of humor. The women’s bravado and the eruption of rivalries within the group come off as upbeat and entertaining instead of as swaggering melodrama.

Some of the crew have specific roles, such as the cook, Hawkins (Natalie Boyd), and cartographer (Lillian Small). By presiding over the food supply, Hawkins is both servant and master, who’s not afraid to confront men about their share of rations or to wield a pan like weapon. Boyd shines in the role, playing it for sympathy and laughs. Monica Harris also is funny as Sumner, who has helped Powell explore other regions and is one of the voices of experience in the group.

The drama plays out like an action adventure. The crew faces the dangers of white water, a limited supply of food and slim chances of finding help if misfortune befalls them. Damaged boats and lost supplies are life and death matters. But there’s also tension about smaller things, such as the limited tobacco supply.

Powell keeps a journal and Hall draws maps, and the drama subtly questions how we know the history of the frontier and how it became mythologized. The men find carvings from a previous explorer. Dunn wants to name landmarks after himself, but the group has rules about handling such claims, including that no one object to a proposed name for it to be approved.

Men on Boats is an ensemble piece, and the cast is strong throughout. They conjure the motion of the boats, the threat of the river and the odd downtime while isolated on the frontier. They know others live in the region and likely have already named all the mountains.

One of the funniest scenes is an odd meeting between Powell and Goodman and two Native Americans. The entire drama has contemporary language, and it’s hilarious to hear Tsauwiat (Claverie) say the group must be “stoked” about their progress, though he’s also a little baffled that they had no “contingency” plan, given that it was likely they’d have damaged boats or run low on food at some point. The Native Americans appear happy to help, but it’s also funny that they are amazed at the party’s lack of preparation.

Not everyone in the expedition is confident about its outcome, and Dunn (Meredith Owens) questions many of Powell’s decisions, threatening to divide the group.

The drama follows the groups fortunes and efforts on the river, and it’s a satisfying adventure. Conflicts arise out of the palpable uncertainty about their prospects of success. There’s also much to consider about the basics of their survival versus the monuments named after some members. To them, making history was no more inevitable than reaching the end of the rough waters.

Men on Boats
March 29-April 1 & 4-7
8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Lusher Lion's Gate Theater, 5624 Freret St.
Tickets $30-$35

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