Review: Fresno State’s playful ‘Men on Boats’ recasts American history
By Heather Parish
I once cast a woman in the role of Hamlet just to discover how it illuminated Shakespeare’s text. Did playwright Jaclyn Backhaus do something similar with an episode of American history?
“Men on Boats,” playing through Saturday at Fresno State’s University Theatre, is the story of the 1869 expedition mapping the Green River and the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Ten men. Four boats. One mission: to make it out of the canyon alive!
That would be the tagline, if cast as it typically would be, with cisgender men. But it isn’t. Backhaus requires the cast to be women and gender non-binary individuals, emphasizing actors of color.
Which illuminates the story in a whole new way.
This incongruous approach rolls the entire story onto its side and makes it a comedy. It may be the different emotional pitch given to the bluster and bravado of the dialogue or the terse modern language dropped into this old-fashioned adventure. Either way, the result is a highly theatrical presentation that leaves a lot of room for playfulness.
And the actors do play. They are at their best when in the boats, throwing themselves into the choreography of a dangerous river run and shouting lines like, “Left! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks right! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks!” The cast is gaining experience, feeling their way through the comedy and conflict. During Tuesday night’s performance, the cast gelled as an ensemble about halfway through the first act, which helped the story along.
Fine supporting performances in the ensemble include Austin Osuna as the querulous O.G. Howland, Samantha Ramos as a mystical Old Shady, and Jizzel Nunez as Hawkins, probably the most sensible of the explorers.
In the leading role of John Wesley Powell, Sabrina Ramirez excels during her monologues and speeches, which are thoughtfully delivered and show the difficulties of being a leader with both a vision and a disability. And as the true explorer John Colton Sumner, Ethan Magill fully inhabits the character’s poignant moments, especially during the “There doesn’t need to be two sides” speech. “Men on Boats” is truly an ensemble piece, and everyone in the cast gets their moment to kick their performance up a notch.
The adept staging by Gina Sandí-Díaz fluidly uses energetic choreography to portray boats barreling over waterfalls and through dangerous rapids. Her treatment of the language of the play is equally skilled, taking Backhaus’ sparse, poetic language and creating choral effects that are at turns ethereal and intimidating. The story of “Ashley,” the explorer who went down the river before them, is a haunting chorus reminding us that rarely is anyone the first to a place, nor will they be the last. It can be both silly and exciting to watch.
The primary shortcoming of the direction is that the incongruous moments need sharpening to achieve the sense of satire required by the script, but everyone makes a valiant effort.
Related story: University Theatre presents ‘Men on Boats,’ a history lesson through a gender-inclusive gaze (The Fresno State Collegian)
The play deals forthrightly with many American themes: danger, adventure, bravery, and destiny. But beneath the surface are a lot of questions. Such as what constitutes a “frontier.” Whether in terms of land or ideas, the “frontier” has always been the terrain of outsiders until they pave the way ahead for everyone else.
And then there is the pesky issue of all the people that already populate this “frontier.” The folks who have been there all along. No matter where the expedition goes, the landscape has names, trails, and Mormons. Human experience has a lot of bends in the river.
Hovering above everything is the question of legacy: “Who will rewrite and recast our story?” Whoever it is, they won’t look the way you expect. “This was your story,” says Mr. Asa. But it might be rewritten by the man waiting at the other end of the canyon.
“Men on Boats” continues through Sat., April 1, at the Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre at Fresno State.
In the before-times, Heather Parish was the founding director of The New Ensemble Theater Group in Fresno and executive producer for Fresno’s Rogue Performance Festival. She is now a recovering thespian and cheery misanthrope scribbling indie zines and defending to the death the importance of accessible libraries. Heather still believes that theater is one of the best means of living an examined life.