I didn’t attend the regional premiere of Men on Boats, which took place at Onstage in Bedford back in August. I wish I had, because it would make a useful comparison point for Circle Theatre’s production of the comedy, which is running now. When Jaclyn Backhaus’ play debuted on Broadway in 2015, the main talking point about it was the fact that 10 white male historical figures were played by 10 women of various races. If you go to the show, I dare say you’ll find it has more to offer than that.
The play takes place in 1869 on the Colorado River, as the one-armed Maj. John Wesley Powell (Camille Monae) leads an expedition in four boats from Wyoming all the way south to what will one day be called the Grand Canyon. Along the way, they lose boats and supplies and encounter hardship and brushes with death by drowning, starvation, and snakebite. Eventually a hunter and trapper named William Dunn (Octavia Y. Thomas) becomes upset at the way Powell is running the trip and threatens a mutiny.
Before the show even starts, you’ll be struck by the set, gorgeously evoking the red canyon walls of the mountainous West with a river winding its way through them. The entrances are cleverly cut into the set so that the actors enter from angles carved into the rock and the bend of the river. Like the playwright, I come from Arizona, so I know what the territory looks like, and Circle’s small space does wonders at making you feel the enormity of the natural features that these men are navigating.
A play whose action largely takes place on the water presents special challenges to a director. Here, director Noah Putterman finds ingenious ways of making barrels, boxes, and stools stand in for the seats in the boats, and the sound effects and some bits of staging make it clear when the men are moving from land to water or vice versa. It’s impossible not to admire the coordinated movement of the cast and the ease with which they negotiate their complicated dialogue cues as they depict the boats being tossed about by the river current, with men occasionally being washed overboard.
Set against this is Backhaus’ steadfastly modern comic sense. When two Native Americans explain that they learned their English negotiating treaties with white people, Powell says, “Oh, wow. Cool.” The native chief deadpans, “Yeah, we got to keep our birthlands, so we were pretty stoked.” When a taciturn expedition member nicknamed Old Shady (Gazelle Garcia) breaks into a song to boost morale, it sounds like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” before Powell cuts it off. An impromptu song also breaks out when the men recover their whiskey supply from a shipwreck.
Casting 10 women as the explorers clues us in that this won’t be a straightforward paean to white-guy heroism, but Backhaus is out for more than just postmodern winking at the audience. An early conversation has the major bestow Dunn’s name on a cliff, only for the two men to reflect that the Indians likely have already named everything they’re seeing. Backhaus wants to critique the American myth of manifest destiny while at the same time celebrating the heroism of Powell and his men, and it’s not something she entirely succeeds in pulling off.
Even so, this play’s 100 minutes without an intermission go down as swiftly as the current in the Colorado, with its considerable charm and funny performances in a well-tuned ensemble cast. All this adds up to make Men on Boats an enjoyable ride.
Thru Nov 17. Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $25-38. 817-877-3040.