Jaclyn Backhaus Spins Men, Gender, & Western Lore
by Jennifer Ann Charron and Barry David Horwitz
In “Men on Boats,” Jaclyn Backhaus transforms the deadpan journals of a 19th century explorer into a thrilling, hilarious play that ridicules masculine myths and U.S. “Manifest Destiny.”
One-armed Major John Wesley Powell, (self-assured Liz Sklar) keeps meticulous journals of his death-defying expedition down the Colorado River, his personal record of this raucous voyage. Backhaus adds modern day lingo and casts ten manly-men explorers with women. Not a male in sight.
The canyon walls loom above them─towering, orange-red topographic maps of endless canyons. The huge sliding panels of the “undiscovered” West lend a cartoon feeling to their river quest.
Director Tamilla Woodard’s womanist cast knocks us out with self-conscious male poses, endless macho chitchat, and boyish Daniel Boone outfits. The cohesive troupe operates like Ocean’s Eight, each character offering his/her unique, endearing skill in a crisis─with comic flair.
As they face starvation, Powell’s nemesis William Dunn (bold Sarita Ocón) opposes Powell’s gung-ho idealism with reason and doubt. Their confrontation puts the whole issue of daredevil maleness on the table.
These women amaze us with their mocking male antics in the Western wilderness─you have to laugh at the calm, rugged John Colton Sumner (impressive Libby King) and the exuberant cook Billy Hawkins (volcanic Amy Lizardo).
We’re also in love with the intrepid map maker Andy Hall (inspiring Rosie Hallett) and prissy British thrill seeker Frank Goodman (delicate Arwen Anderson.) Like a family on the road, the pioneers touchingly bond, tease, joke, and argue over directions. Real men must be right.
We are moved by their boyish antics and self-deceptions, and ponder their gender roles and attitudes. Their posturing makes a mockery of male pretensions, revealing gender as a learned role. These gender-bending glimpses create enormous laughs, but Backhaus has other fish to fry. Her all female crew illuminates the in-your-face cowboy constraints on western maleness. It takes real women to do that─and makes great comedy.
“Men on Boats” follows Powell’s first ever expedition─except for Native Americans, of course─down the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon. The hardship of the journey is brilliantly portrayed on stage by the actors’ choreographed physicality.
Some want to abandon the trip; some believe in ‘friendly’ Indians. With a few funny props, we sweep down the Colorado River, clinging to three mock boats, screaming down wild waterfalls. Woodard’s precise direction is simply exhilarating.
Backhaus ultimately questions what it means to be an explorer. Although Powell and friends claim they are discovering “virgin western territory,” we know better. Powell and Dunn are absurdly obsessed with naming land features after themselves.
“Men on Boats” pits caution against risk. Are we on an American adventure for the general welfare or just paddling along an ego trip? The all women team takes us down the Colorado to discover answers─with great fun and excitement. Watch out for those rapids ahead. And that rattlesnake! Best trip ever.
“Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus, directed by Tamilla Woodard, by American Conservatory Theater at Strand Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, December 16, 2018. Info: act-sf.org
Cast: Arwen Anderson, Rosie Hallett, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Libby King, Amy Lizardo, Sarita Ocón, Annemaria Rajala, Katherine Romans, Liz Sklar, and Lauren Spencer.
Banner photo: The Ensemble on the river. Photos by Kevin Berne