Review: Innovative Storytelling Upends Expectations in Justice Theatre Project’s Production of ‘Men on Boats’

By Kim Jackson

Innovative storytelling of a piece of history could be the quick description of The Justice Theatre  Project’s production of Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats, but that would be reductive. Based on the book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell, the play recreates a somewhat perilous 1869 river expedition down the Colorado River to map the area we now call the Grand Canyon. That’s the conventional part; the theatrical element comes from upending our expectations. Boats are imagined entities and, well, no boys allowed.

The script specifically states that while the original participants were cisgender white males, the cast is to be anything but; it is to be all-inclusive of those identifying as female, trans, fluid and/or non-gender conforming. Manifest Destiny adventure time is reimagined, which is extended to the transport vehicles as well. Denise Cerniglia’s extremely well-executed choreography and physical movement thoroughly captures both the thrill and danger of the whitewater experience.

Director Jules Odendahl-James successfully offers a vivid rendering of Powell’s journey. The cast may wear male garb (superbly designed by Emily John, with a special nod to the distinguishing hats), but the actors never fall into stereotypes. In fact, Odendahl-Jones manages to straddle a delicate balance as she fully renders these characters as individuals coping with an extraordinary set of circumstances, which makes for a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience.

The fearless and ever optimistic leader, Powell, is played by Faye Goodwin who brings a quiet certitude to the one-armed Civil War veteran, as well as a reserved, steady resolve when fending off leadership challenges, particularly by Dunn. As a hunter and trapper who wants to name landmarks after himself and believes he would be a better leader than Powell, Dunn represents dissent within the group. Mara Thomas imbues this character with confidence but not swagger, and the conflict between the two men heightens the dramatic tension that already underlines the increasingly dangerous river journey.

The other adventurers sport an array of distinctive characteristics that add both much-needed humor and perspective to the story, from the funny, sensible cook, played with just the right amount of attitude by Page Purgar, to the exuberant youth looking for adventure, played with great eagerness by Marleigh Purgar McDonald. In addition, Jessica Flemming expertly evokes the resigned demeanor of Old Shady, Powell’s brother, who often deflects some of the grumblings by others. Also notable are fine performances by Sara Koop as Goodman, the Brit in the group who signed on as a lark; Tori Grace Nichols as the disgruntled, but resourceful Sumner; Candace Hescock as the practical mapmaker, Hall; Johanna Burwell as the aloof pilferer, O.G.; and Ariel Griffin Smith as O.G.’s affable brother, Seneca.

This production also benefits from some exceptional technical elements to round out the realistic imaginings, from the sound of rushing water and crackling campfire (Juan Isler) to the changes in lighting (Jenni Man Becker) turning days in the canyon to campfire nights. The set design by Sonya Dunn is striking in its suggestions of mountains and cliff walls but left plenty of space for the cast to move fluidly up and down the river.

So, what is up with the title? Powell referred to the group that joined him in the trip commissioned by the U.S. government as “my noble and generous companions.” Yes, the original group would have been entirely composed of those identifying as male and yet, by shifting away from that construct, Backhaus interrogates how history is defined by who records it. What is notable about this rendition of the story is how she challenges the audience to consider identity, and in doing so, reveals the humanity and courage that transcends an individual. This historic group of explorers had to overcome differences and their own prejudices to work together, and these twenty-first-century performers reflect that aspect as well. Their synchronization in the boat scenes is incredibly believable because they are fully engaged in the challenge just as Powell’s group was. No real boats nor men are needed to imagine this historic journey because clearly, the journey of the river, as of life, is for everyone.

Men on Boats runs through February 24th. For more information visit: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/.

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