Heroes, theater and suspensions of disbelief

PAD presents Jaclyn Backhaus’ ‘Men On Boats’ Feb. 21-March 1

The Cast of “Men On Boats.” (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

“I was kidding. You’re cool. You make maps. You pack light. You’re not like … weirdly defensive or anything.”
— Hawkins

Ten brave men board four wooden skiffs for a pioneering journey across the vast, uncharted American West. Except that sites they discover are well known to countless generations of native peoples. And the rivers they float are theatrical sets, and the boats are really stage props.

And the men on the boats are not men.

In her provocative comedy “Men On Boats,” contemporary playwright Jaclyn Backhaus explores the narrative conventions of 19th-century heroism — as embodied by real-life explorer John Wesley Powell — as well as how our own expectations, in both theater and life, shape the ways we see.

“This is a very funny play,” said Andrea Urice, teaching professor of drama in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Urice will direct the show in Edison Theatre Feb. 21-March 1. “Backhaus is a gifted comedic writer. But the point she’s making is that so many of our national stories are told from a very particular vantage point.

“So what happens if we tell this story through the voices of those who are often omitted?”

An interesting conflation

First produced by New York’s Clubbed Thumb theater company in 2015, “Men On Boats” is largely based on a 99-day expedition that Powell, a trained geologist and decorated Civil War veteran, led down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869.

John Wesley Powell, c. 1881. (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Powell was an interesting guy, and somewhat progressive for his day,” Urice said. “He advocated for retaining indigenous languages and argued against relocating native peoples. But in other ways, he was still a creature of his era.”

For example, Powell and his men spend a good deal of time naming landmarks along the way: Flaming Gorge, Bright Angel Creek, Dirty Devil River and, most famously, the Grand Canyon. When one character briefly muses that such places must already have native names, the crew is nonplussed and responds with a collective shrug.

“This play is an interesting conflation,” Urice observed. “There’s the 1869 adventure story: a 1,000-mile journey on those extraordinarily treacherous western rivers. That really was an accomplishment. But the play also has a subversive wit that pokes at the idea, and ideology, of Manifest Destiny.”

In his New York Times review, theater critic Ben Brantley noted that “’Men on Boats’ starts from the realization that we can never recreate exactly how it was.” Instead, the play — like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which also debuted in 2015 — employs diverse casting and current-day language to lower barriers between historical figures and contemporary audiences.

“There is a heightened sense of theatricality, but this is not camp,” Urice said. “The women wear period-appropriate male clothing, but they are not affecting male sound or movement, and I don’t think that any of Backhaus’ humor comes at the expense of gender.”

“Like any play, the actors form the characters from the clues embedded in the script,” Urice concluded. “The audience is just going to have to come along for the ride.”

Cast and crew

The cast of 10 stars Kyliah Thompson as John Wesley Powell, Maddie House-Tuck as William Dunn and Madison Lee as John Colton Sumner. Jenise Sheppard is Oramel (O.G.) Howland; Lucie Kirk is Seneca Howland, and Sarah James is Frank Goodman.

Sarah Del Carmen Camacho and Naomi Blair are George Young Bradley and Walter Henry Powell (Old Shady), respectively. Alisha Duvall is William Robert Hawkins, and Taya Bokert is Andrew Hall.

The scenic designer is Emmett Grosland, a 2005 performing arts alumnus. Costumes are by Dominique Rhea Glaros. Props are by Emily Frei. Lighting and sound are by Benjamin Gaffney and Benjamin Lewis. Music and projections are by Roger Netherton and Sean Savoie. The movement coordinator is 2015 alumnus Mitchell Manar. Dominick Ehling, a 2017 alumnus, served as rowing and boating consultant. The stage manager is 2015 alumnus Robert Landis, and the technical director is Mike Loui.


“Men On Boats” begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 22; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23. Performances continue the following weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 28 and 29; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1.

Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or free for Washington University students and $15 for other students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.

“Men on Boats” is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Services Inc., New York.

For more information, call 314-935-6543.

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