Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Men on Boats
New Village Arts Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see David's review of The Happiest Place on Earth

Kristianne Kurner and Milena (Sellers) Phillips
Photo by Daren Scott
As famous as the Grand Canyon is, most people aren't aware of the history of the national park. A voyage that doesn't get discussed often outside of Arizona is the Powell Expedition, when John Wesley Powell explored the Colorado River with several companions and crewmembers. Jaclyn Backhaus' Men on Boats reimagines Powell's journey, features women playing all the male roles, and uses modern slang and contemporary English usage to connect with today's audience. While the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad labels the show an adventure comedy, it's really an adventure tale with moments of humor, drama and suspense.

When the 1869 Sanctioned Expedition from the government starts, the one-armed John Wesley Powell (Executive Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner) and his crewmates are thrilled about their trip. A couple of the men joining him on the adventure are his close friend William H. Dunn (Nancy Ross), the civilized Englishman Frank Goodman (Tiffany Tang), and their energetic cook, William Rhodes Hawkins (Samantha Ginn). While they all have different reasons for joining the expedition, they generally appear excited on their far-from-routine adventure. Adversity soon looms, with food rations running low, personal conflicts starting to grow, and the rivers becoming increasingly dangerous. Still, they are able to maintain hope, especially when Powell and others unexpectedly find themselves at the Grand Canyon.

Backhaus' style of writing isn't meant to be an authentic representation of the time period. Adventurers introduce themselves in grandiose ways, occasionally speak in unison, and spontaneously give speeches to the people around them. Her comedic moments are used to break through the tension that occurs, with Powell and the others sometimes cracking wise after facing what seems to be certain death. A few lines try a little too hard to be self-aware, such as a joke that foreshadows the official name of the Grand Canyon. Overall, though, her dialogue is effective mainly because of Melissa Coleman-Reed's direction.

Coleman-Reed has staged several situations with an emphasis on physical acting. Performers often mimic rowing, and she directs a few tense sequences as the protagonists battle nature. The creative ensemble working with Coleman-Reed convey a sense of discovery to the various events that occur throughout the play. Melanie Chen Cole's use of powerful music and sounds that emphasize the environment, Eliza Benzoni's 19th century-influenced costumes, and Christopher Scott Murillo's mountain-heavy set create a broad period tone. Sarah Schwartz's lighting vividly portrays the numerous sunny days and cold nights that Powell experiences. Except for the use of water, there isn't a whole lot of variety in Cole's projections. I was hoping for photos and art of the Grand Canyon or the types of boats that play an important part in Backhaus's text.

Bonding experiences and potential rivalries are well explored by the actresses onstage. One shifting relationship, for example, is between Kurner's John Wayne-ish John Wesley Powell and Ross' equally motivational William Dunn. Kurner and Ross capture both the playful exchanges the men share, as well as the opposing viewpoints that are exchanged when times get tough. Other performers, cast in supporting roles, bring plenty of personality (they project their voices in a way that resembles speaking outdoors) and comical quirks to John's companions. Tang, Ginn, Melba Novoa, Milena (Sellers) Phillips and others each make the most of the time when the spotlight is focused on them.

Men on Boats might be an account of real events, but there are a few unanswered questions about what happened to various men in the party. Backhaus doesn't try to solve these mysteries, which lends a haunting quality to the narrative. Another choice that isn't explicitly explained in the rendition is why the men are depicted by a diverse female cast. Her explanation in an interview for Stage Buddy is "the show's always been this rallying cry for people to take our American history into a broader context than we usually do." Coleman-Reed's storytelling allows this creative choice to work.

Through the work of the cast and crew, theatregoers get to experience the joys and struggles of an unpredictable odyssey. Whether you're a history buff, a feminist, or a world traveler, Backhaus' play provides no shortage of captivating entertainment.

Men on Boats through April 22, 2018, at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village, California, with performances Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $33.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 760-433-3245.