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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Men on Boats
Theatre in the Round Players
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of MJ and Skeleton Crew

Marguerite Arbogast
and Antonia Gbai

Photo by Tom Taintor
In summer of 1869, ten men boarded four boats at Green River Station in the Wyoming Territory and ventured downstream, taking a quick jog into the Colorado Territory and then into what became Utah, to where the Green joins the mighty Colorado. They continued on the Colorado through a series of deep and magnificent canyons, leading to the grandest of all canyons. Upon exiting what was not yet named the Grand Canyon, their journey came to an end. It had taken three months. This expedition, led by Captain John Wesley Powell, was the first sanctioned by the United States government to explore and map those beautiful and unforgiving riverbeds. In 2015, Jaclyn Backus wrote a play about this epic journey titled, fittingly, Men on Boats, with instructions to anyone producing it that all ten of these men, and three other men who appear briefly, must be played on stage by women.

Theatre in the Round Players is now presenting Men on Boats in a solid production directed by Sophie Peyton. Careful attention is paid to establishing the harmony and rhythms required for these men to get through their days. The play is at times slow moving, as the intrepid explorers pull their oars in unison or engage in snatches of conversation while banked ashore to sup and sleep. But these lulls are frequently punctured by moments of extreme tension–the capsizing of a boat or near-drowning of a man, or a conflict rising between them, almost inevitable considering the intimacy forced upon ten strangers under such constraining conditions and dangers. Men on Boats depicts how a course of action requiring immense courage may have long stretches of time when everything falls into routine, but that any moment can turn into a calamity in the blink of an eye.

Backus lightens the mood with some anachronistic dialogue–for instance, as two of the crew bonding over their desire to have as good a time as they can call out, "Party boat!" like a pair of frat bros. These moments are not frequent enough to take Men on Boats as a farce; rather, they remind us that these men are in most ways not very different than their counterparts living today.

The ten characters on the play's expedition bear the historic names of the actual explorers. Their leader, Powell (Marguerite Arbogast), lost an arm in combat as an officer in the Civil War. This did not stop him from accepting a number of high-ranking federal positions, including this commission. Also on the crew is Powell's brother Walter, called Old Shady (Noë Tallen), who maintains a cool head in the face of peril, and provides cheer from time to time with a song. Another pair of brothers are on the crew, Seneca (Krystle Igbo) and O.G. (LaReina LaPlante). Andrew Hall (Courtney Matula) is a cartographer, charged with mapping out the terrain, furthering the cause of American manifest destiny.

William Dunn (Antonia Gbai) and John Sumner (Amanda Espinoza) both are hunters and trappers accustomed to rugged life in the mountains, though Dunn conveys a sense of affinity for the land, while Sumner seems more disposed to conquer it. There is Billy Hawkins (Erika Soukup), the crew's high-spirited cook, and Bradley (Tic Treitler), a nineteen-year-old shy in experience but endowed with courage and common sense. Finally, Frank Goodman (Lois Estell) came all the way from England to join the expedition. Goodman is a wealthy Brit who travels the world, as he puts it, "for sport."

All of the actors are up to the demands of their roles. While each provides a sense of their character's unique qualities, the episodic nature of the story and the large number of characters keep any one from being developed very deeply. Most successful in expressing some depth in their character are Gbai Dunn as Dunn, Espinoza as Sumner, and Soukup as Hawkins. As Powell, Arbogast maintains a can-do optimism that keeps the party going, but at times his optimism veers into what feels like naiveté rather than leadership.

Note, I said "his optimism" in the line above. There is no intent whatsoever for these characters, though portrayed by women, to appear as anything but cis-males. Backhaus does not overtly play with gender roles by requiring what would, usually, be an ensemble of men to be played by an ensemble of women. Would the play have been perceived differently had the roles been cast with men or with a mixed cast of men and women? It does feel that we have a sense of the humanity of each of these characters, which may not have been as clear if we saw them in male bodies. Here we see them unencumbered by the weight of bravado and trying to prove their "manliness," but simply as people facing great risks for the sake of employment, adventure, and–at least for Powell–to fulfill a sense of duty to his country.

In one scene, some of the men climb up from the riverbed to seek assistance from the local inhabitants, expecting those would-be members of the Ute nation. On the way, they meet a pair of white settlers (Krystle Igbo and LaReina LaPlante) who advise the them against approaching the Utes, pointing out that the Utes have not had good experiences with white intruders. The two settlers also make comments, conveyed with a sense of what is definitely 21st century irony, indicating their lack of surprise that the government sent the expedition into the wilderness without taking greater pains to ensure their safety. Backhaus seems to be telegraphing criticism of settler colonialism and cavalier government adventurism, but the delivery feels heavy handed. Those messages would have been better expressed imbedded within the narrative on the river.

The play is grounded by a glorious physical production. I don't know how it has worked on proscenium stages, but with MJ Leffler's set design, it seems perfectly suited for an in-the-round production. The center of the stage is molded and painted to resemble the rocky buttresses rising above the rivers, while encircling this is the green and brown watery river on which the men steer their boats–which are left to our imagination–around the central land mass. On two side of the stage, a vein of buttes and rock piles rise up through the audience seats to the rear of the auditorium, where stunning painted oranges and reds depict the Southwest's blazing land and sky.

Bill Larsen's lighting creates marvelous variations, as when night falls upon the expedition or the river glistens in morning light. Christy Johnson adds the sounds of churning water, a near-constant that grows in intensity as the boats approach rapids, as well as a variety of birds offering their songs to the travelers. Amid this abundant display of nature's sights and sounds, the frontier costumes designed by Claire Looker suit the characters to a tee. A combination of staging, lighting, and movement direction (by Kelly Nelson) creates compelling images of men rowing in unison, tipping from side to side as they pass through rapids, a boat capsizing, or men floundering in the river. There is a wonderful depiction of the boats riding the crest of a waterfall, a gambit the men had no reason to believe they could survive.

Men on Boats is an engrossing play that tells a little-known but important story out of our nation's history. With the twist of having the all-male expedition played by female actors, we gain a sense of the humanity. The staging impressively conveys the men's efforts and their boats' movements through both mild and wild conditions, and it plays out in a stunning physical production. When we consider what has become of what was once wilderness today, the conditions of the Ute and other indigenous nations, and the diminished force of the mighty Colorado River brought on by climate change, the impact of these brave men on boats takes on a more immediate significance.

Men on Boats runs through June 2, 2024, at Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-3010 or visit

Playwright: Jaclyn Backhaus; Director: Sophie Peyton; Set Design: MJ Leffler; Costume Design: Claire Looker; Lighting Design: Bill Larsen; Sound Design: Christy Johnson; Props Design: Vicky Erickson; Movement Director: Kelly Nelson; Associate Director: Kassy Skoretz; Assistant Director: Bria Weisz; Stage Manager: Jessi Kadolph; Assistant Stage Manager: Max Taggart.

Cast: Marguerite Arbogast (John Wesley Powell), Amanda Espinoza (John Colton Sumner), Lois Estell (Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa), Antonia Gbai (William Dunn), Krystle Igbo (Seneca Howard/ Johnson), LaReina LaPlante (O.G. Howard/ Just Jim), Courtney Matula (Hall), Erika Soukup (Hawkins), Noƫ Tallen (Old Shady), Tic Treitler (Bradley).