Men on Boats has to be the most exhausting show of the year to date. Not for audiences, which should be entertained by New Village Arts Theatre’s white-knuckle dramatization of an epic journey through churning waters into the Grand Canyon. But Men on Boats’ 10 actors, all of them women portraying men, tirelessly create the illusion of these adventurers challenging the wrath of the Green and Colorado rivers by miming rowing, by grunting, by shouting and flailing. The perspiration onstage is real.
Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, directed at NVA by Melissa Coleman-Reed, follows the 1869 quest of an intrepid four-boat crew led by one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell. The U.S. government-funded mission: to make the first successful passage by men of European descent through the treacherous waters of the Grand Canyon. Men on Boats chronicles this dangerous trip and does so with the device of an all-woman cast, including NVA Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner as Powell.
With nothing more than projections (by Melanie Chen Cole) of the rivers’ furious white water and towering red rocks (designed by Christopher Scott Murillo) behind them, Kurner and company ably achieve the impression of an adventure that would seem extremely difficult to suggest on a theater stage. It helps that the actors are in nearly perpetual motion and in a consistent state of full-throated excitement. As for the gender switch, it doesn’t on its face add any layering of understanding to the story, though the physicality of the actors demonstrates that no battle with nature is the province of one sex.
The steady Kurner is Men on Boats’ anchor; among the ensemble the most nuanced performance is delivered by Nancy Ross in the role of William H. Dunn, who recognizes the peril of the exploit, challenges Powell’s judgment and even comes close to crumbling.
Men on Boats is better at spectacle and ingenuity than it is at being a play. Its episodes are drawn out, its humor sometimes strained and its ending clunky, unsatisfying. There must be, however, only admiration for its director, who must navigate a cinematic story on a theater stage, and for the 10 women who give their all in a fashion that would have made Powell’s crew proud. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 4/11/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.