It's the true-ish story of a ten-man expedition played on stage by ten women. It's an epic journey along the rivers that run through the Grand Canyon, perhaps the last great mapping expedition in the United States. And led by a one-armed Army major who lost his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh.
"This is probably going to be the last time people were going to be paid to run a river," says Celeste Roberts who plays the lead role.
Main Street Theater's upcoming production of the 90-minute Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, promises to be a fascinating ride as the stage is converted to rivers and overland passageways. Roberts plays that military leader John Wesley Powell, who was 35 when he undertook the mission ordered up by Ulysses S. Grant to map out the Green and Colorado rivers.
Asked why women were playing all the parts, Roberts explained that "The playwright when she was researching and wanting to write a play, she was fascinated with these characters, with these people. And the thought she had was: 'I would love to play some of these roles.' And then she said 'Why not?'"
"This is a great opportunity to play a fantastic person," said Roberts. "What these 10 people did was very dangerous and exciting and it's got all the elements of people getting together and facing all these challenges and hardship and some don't make it."
Roberts said she doesn't think of Powell as a "character" but as a "person," because he was a real person.
"He didn't have a formal education but he ended up teaching in a university. He was interested in all kinds of things including nature, botany, geology," Roberts said. He's lost both parents at a young age and his brother was with him on the journey. While Powell is the leader, another member of the expedition thinks that job should fall to him so there's dissension in the ranks. Boats capsize, they run low on rations, crew members are lost along the way as are boats.
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Some are doing it for sport, some trying to escape their debts, but all are hired to do a job they're being paid for, Roberts said.
Philips Hays directs the two act running about two hours total. The playwright specifically asked that the cast be as diverse as possible. Reading from the playwright's notes, Roberts said: "Characters in Men on Boats were historically cis gender white male. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not."
As Roberts and the rest of the cast discovered, a lot of what they're called on to do in the play, although challenging is fun, with regular calls of "Rock!" as they encounter the next obstacle. "Most of the action takes place on the river in boats," Roberts said. "If we do our jobs right it's really going to be a treat for the audiences with a suspension of disbelief."
Performances are scheduled for February 10 through March 11 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $39-$45.