Sometimes, your boat capsizes midstream. Other times, your tipsy little craft defies the odds and makes it through the rapids.
Sometimes, you find yourself dangling above a precipice, gripping the ledge with one hand. A friend throws a lifeline. But later, a rattlesnake threatens. And then you lose an oar.
That’s the way the journey goes for the characters in Baltimore Center Stage’s production of “Men on Boats" which retells the real-life saga of John Wesley Powell, his nine-member crew and their three-month, danger-filled river odyssey down the Grand Canyon in 1869.
And, that’s the way the journey goes for the rest of us as well.
Jaclyn Backhaus’ play quickly becomes a metaphor for the perilous, thrill-packed, lifelong trip on which we’ve all embarked. And, just like another blockbuster musical, “Men on Boats” uses a non-traditional cast to put a new spin on American history.
Sun rating: Four oars out of four. This is a show that takes its audience someplace unexpected and new.
The play is called “Men on Boats.” Where are the boats?: Previous productions featured the bows and hulls of four lightweight, portable boats, named for the vessels that made the real-life trip. But at Center Stage even the vestige of watercraft has been eliminated. Instead, the actors gather in four groups on stage and mime the action of being tossed about by the waves. The boat props aren’t missed; audience catches on pretty quickly that it’s watching a journey downriver.
What’s up with the casting? In real life, Powell and his crew were all white men. But Backhaus has specified that all the roles be performed by actors who are either women or gender non-conforming. In addition, most performers in this production are people of color.
So, this is the X-chromosome version of “Hamilton”? Not really, though the setup is similar. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster rap musical is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the playwright prided himself on his script’s historical accuracy. “Hamilton” presents history straight, though with black actors portraying America’s founding fathers.
“Men on Boats” is far more fanciful, and leaves more of the action to the audience’s imagination. This show takes place on a mostly bare stage against a backdrop of the Grand Canyon, with just a handful of props used to hint at a set. There’s a chair, a rock, a log felicitously equipped with a handle for ease of carrying.
So why not just cast white men? Because this play wouldn’t be nearly as interesting — or as authentic — with a male cast.
The terrain that “Men on Boats” is most interested in exploring is female friendship and in particular, the shifting rivalries and alliances between two frenemies, Powell and wannabe expedition leader William Dunn (a rakish Jessica Ranville). This show is a map of the manner in which girlfriends bicker and bond, the solace they find in one another’s company.
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Koons wisely doesn’t ask her cast to impersonate men but instead celebrates and gently satirizes their femaleness. So when the one-armed captain (staunchly played by Ceci Fernandez) swivels his body in another direction while seated, Fernandez scootches her feet sideways in rapid, mincing little steps. Another character worries out loud that smoking will ruin his complexion.
Not necessarily. There are moments when the script positions the expedition (the first trip through the Grand Canyon sanctioned by the U.S. government) as inherently exploitative and Powell as the chief villain. But ultimately, the play doesn’t seem all that interested in making a political statement or assigning blame.
This production of “Men on Boats” is far more hopeful than cynical, far more interested in honoring human curiosity than in condemning it. The playwright’s affection for the one-armed captain keeps sneaking through. Powell is forever scribbling in his journal, recording impressions of what he’s just seen. In this production, he carries a quill pen with him at all times — and that quill is so intrusive, so absurdly long, it practically earns its own curtain call.