Ahoy, ye hearty and hirsute brave men of daring. Let's go adventuring! Here's the best by far – Jaclyn Backhaus' Men on Boats, careening through Main Street Theater in the theatrical event of the season.
You will find thrills on a mammoth scale, meet Indians, kill snakes, and, of course, ride the rapids. You'll scout mountains and rivers, naming them after yourself if so inclined. You'll be wet and exhausted after hours of rowing, but your evenings under the sky canopy of the American West will fill you with awe. While it lasts, the food will be satisfying: fish and flour biscuits, plenty of coffee, bacon until it goes rancid after a dunking in the Colorado, and a tin cup of whiskey to clear away trepidation to make you bold once more. But it's the water that pushes you onward, ever onward, no matter the hardship, no matter the dissension among your mates. You've never seen such water. Calm as a bath near the oak groves, then roiling as it blasts through submerged rocks to wreck you as it cascades. You have no choice, over you go.
Filled with spectacular danger and spectacular beauty, the river that runs through Main Street is plywood, the canyon walls are shredded fabric, the four boats of the expedition are plastic tubes, like extended hula-hoops, and the ten men of the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition are played by women.
With this grand gesture of gender reversal, the struggle for survival as the team plows forward is glossed with a subtle frisson it wouldn't have if the roles were played by men. It's a gimmick, but it's a jim-cracklingly good one. Exceptional, you might say. There's a soft thrum of humor that threads through the story because of this, as well as wry social commentary. With the first sight of the “men” maneuvering through the treacherous headwaters, you forget the sex and enjoy the ride. By the play's marvelous end, you feel as if you, too, have paddled down the Colorado with these intrepid explorers.
Under director Philip Hays, limitless in imagination, Men on Boats is a continuous voyage of discovery, a virtual coup de theatre in every way. Caught in the currents, the men maneuver as best they can. Boats whirl, men thrown overboard, supplies lost when dashed on rocks. This is splendid theater. Designer Ryan McGettigan's raw wood floor swirls with streaks of river blue, and massive panels hang from upstage to create crevasses and outlooks. Macy Lyne's redolent costumes are modishly period with enough rawhide and suede to satisfy any urban outfitter; while John Smetak's exterior lighting bespeaks campfire or rushing rapids. Especially good is Shawn W. St. John's roaring soundtrack that makes each section of the river sound a little bit different, be it waterfall, eddy, or foaming chute. He drenches us.
The actors catch all the macho bombast, glory, fear, and inspiration of these disparate ten. There's camaraderie and tension built in, leavened by stalwart Celeste Roberts as one-armed Major John Wesley Powell. It's his mission to survey the river, sanctioned by the government, and he's going to do it. In buckskin and boots, Roberts anchors the production as she coaxes her team down river. She's stern, commanding, and diplomatic, a fierce blend of the sexes. During quiet moments she writes in her diary, speaking Powell's actual words about nature's raw splendor and treacherous beauty. The passages are ripe, a necessary respite before the morning's awaiting dangers. We'd follow her anywhere.
Her adversary is Patricia Duran, as William Dunn, trapper from Colorado, who chafes at Powell's disregard for safety and his own open desire to be leader. Prickly and ready to fight, he will leave the expedition days before it reaches its final destination in Nevada, taking two of the men with him. Hiking out of the canyon, they will disappear into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
Except for Englishman Frank Goodman, played with building disillusionment by Shannon Emerick, who abandons the party at an Indian encampment and who would survive, Powell safely brought the others home. Out on the river for adventure and sport, Goodman had “gone west,” only to rue his decision when reality turns life-threatening. Emerick returns in the last scene as Mormon Mr. Asa, who wraps up the story in ironic counterpoint. Her appearance, by ladder, is yet another visual delight during this play's constant pleasures.
Rachel Dickson, as John Sumner, professional guide who had previously led Powell through the Rockies, brings steely warmth to the gruff man who's seen it all before. Candice D'Meza and Mai Le resound as the Howland brothers, O.G., the expedition's mapmaker, and Seneca, a tad disreputable and disagreeable. Their glorious turns as the dubious and hilarious dead-pan Indians, Tsauwiat and The Bishop, add surreal comic punch. Marissa Castillo and Lydia Meadows, as fun-loving Hall and Hawkins, the cook, row the “party boat.” Caroline Donica is Bradley, the youngest member of the team at 19. He grows up fast. Andrea Boronell is Old Shady, Powell's brother and mysterious presence, a spiritual guide, of sorts. Often, she sings plaintively in the background, tinging the scene with fateful reverie. During one campfire segment, the men accompany her with rhythmic clacks on their tin cups and plates. It's a magical moment of comradeship and community. A distaff drum circle. Fragrant.
I hope Main Street has contingency plans for extending the run, for Men on Boats could be its biggest hit in seasons. Grand and off-kilter, strange and soulful, epic yet intimate, it's stuffed with theatrical wonder. We've lauded Main Street in the past for its wicked Coward, illuminating Stoppard, and sterling Shakespeare, among its intriguing productions. Add to the list: bracing Backhaus.
Take the plunge! Last one in the boat...Women first, don't you know.
Men on Boats continues through March 11 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 3 p.m. on Sundays at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $39-$45.