Jaclyn Backhaus takes the man out of manifest destiny in her cheeky “Men on Boats.”
A picaresque adventure that splashes through the 1869 travel exploits of John Wesley Powell, the plot contains 10 men and 4 boats but the show has zero of either.
Indeed, this white-knuckle trek through Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon is entirely performed by women, all estimable Bay Area performers. At first, you are keenly aware of the chest-thumping and manspreading but soon enough you are sucked into an escapade that goes beyond gender into the mystique of undiscovered territory.
Exuberantly directed by Tamilla Woodard, this is a rollicking 100-minute deep dive into the nature of masculinity, conquest and power. A fresh young voice on the rise, the playwright (“India Pale Ale”) slyly deconstructs history and gender tropes under the guise of a nail-biting journey down the mighty Colorado River.
A ragtag band of explorers navigate a series of dangerous rapids in *Men on Boats—*Jaclyn Backhaus’s hilarious, historical, and moving adventure—performing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.
Having Liz Sklar play the one-armed Civil War major Powell transforms the way her usually lithe body commands the stage. As Powell, an unabashed alpha male in a wide-brimmed hat, Sklar takes up all her own space and a lot of everyone else’s.
Bluster and bravado just come natural to the man in charge. We are so accustomed to seeing women defend and deflect that it’s invigorating, if a little sad, to finally see one expand into her own sense of power.
The staging may be minimalist, with a few ropes and prows outfitting the entire historic expedition, but the performances are lavish.
The cast lustily adopts the swagger and braggadocio of their characters, many of whom are rogues and rascals who’d sooner fight than make polite conversation. In fact, Backhaus lets the men speak in a vibrant 21st-century idiom riddled with phrases like “that’s so chill.”
Shooting the breeze while they ride the whitewater rapids, they float into history under Powell. Meet the less-than-ethical Howland brothers, Seneca (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and O.G. (Lauren Spencer), who are pilfering from precious supplies while hatching plots, the creepy crooner Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala) the major’s older brother who sings eerie little ditties, the thrill-addicted mapmaker Hall (Rosie Hallett), the hard-bitten trapper Dunn (Sarita Ocon) and the fish-out-of-water Frank Goodman (a dryly funny Arwen Anderson) a well-heeled British tourist whose Wild West trek gets a tad wilder than he bargained for.
When a cask of whiskey goes overboard, all hell break loose. As the craggy rocks and knife-like peaks give way to the colossal towers of the canyon and the waterfalls come hard and fast, the travelers jockey for command. Some want to abandon the mission. Others will follow Powell, with his well-timed stirring speeches, into the mouth of doom.
Men fall overboard, boats capsize and every once in a while the explorers take a moment to stop and admire the scenery. That’s their favorite part, of course, getting to slap their names on a cliff or a volcano as if they were the …read more
Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment