Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Men on Boats
Palo Alto Players is presenting the 2015 Off-Off-Broadway-premiering Men on Boats in which playwright Jaclyn Backhaus seeks to entertain and enlighten us about the first government-sanctioned trip in 1869 down the Green River as it spills ripping and roaring into what we now know as the Grand Canyon. With a twist that mirrors the surprising bends and turns that this rag-tag group of adventurers will soon encounter, the playwright tells the tale–one at times as tall as any piece of American folklore–through the voices of women (in this particular production, of ten actors who identify as female and non-binary). The history of the incredible perseverance, risk, and often sacrifice of these ten, largely unknown white men unfolds with gusto, grit and grin as these non-male actors of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds prove that they can grunt, snarl, spar and spit as good or better than any man ever did in the great, unexplored outdoors.
Sometimes gripping the sides of their imaginary boats in terror and sometimes pumping unseen oars with incredible vigor, tight clumps of bodies in each boat lean hard to left, jerk back and forth, shudder almost uncontrollably, or suddenly rise to a standing position as they strive to maneuver the next bend, rock or waterfall. As a boat gets into trouble, invisible ropes are tossed, and bodies strain to the vein-popping max to save a fellow boat from disaster. When the inevitable disaster finally occurs with a boat upended, bodies spill to roll, toss and spin in drowning waters (signified by flowing, blue scarfs) as hands reach desperately to save them.
As exciting as it is to witness this reenactment of a river exploration fraught with danger but also filled with exhilaration, the real joy of Men on Boats is to get to know these men–all mostly Civil War veterans or mountain men–and get to know them through the lens of people who are not male. Full of pumped-up testosterone tendencies to brag, brawl and bully, these men also tell their story through a more feminine lens to magnify their innate shared teamwork, humanity and caring. By doing so, their story becomes all the more engaging, funny, sad, and–in the end–all the more admirable and believable.
Mary Melnick is the one-armed, always optimistic leader of the expedition, John Wesley Powell, whose meticulously kept journal provides some of the dialogue for Jaclyn Backhaus' script and whose name is forever engraved in our maps in the United State's largest manmade reservoir, Lake Powell. Mary Melnick's Powell is a combination of fearless persistence, ongoing inspiration, and almost goofy, kid-like excitement. Through this Powell, we get a glimpse of how a leader might stand up to a possible mutiny that is driven by starvation and exhaustion, and do so without a gun's loaded stock staring at the to-be traitors.
The yin to Powell's yang is the fur-capped woodsman William Dunn, played by Melissa Jones. The two share wonderful moments as Dunn looks for just the right jagged ridge or high cliff to leave his name attached and as Powell both encourages and celebrates with Dunn that moment of discovery and decision. But Dunn has a cautious side, too, and is not past challenging with pent-up frustration and some anger the leader he also clearly admires. Melissa Jones is a wonderful contrast to Mary Melnick as Powell, with their relationship illustrating the emotional pushes and pulls that probably occurred between adventurers in every such wilderness outing of the unknown in the early days of this country's history. Together, these two actors provide the production's strongest performances.
The richness of this tale–sometimes a tale that takes on a few too many aspects of an animated cartoon when it resorts to sheer silliness–comes from an array of characters whose personalities the playwright ensures we have a chance to meet in depth, one-by-one. Others who stand out in their performances and stories in this Palo Alto Players outing include Katie O'Bryon Champlin as the fire-plug-sized, big-hearted, cook Hawkins, and Maria Mikheyenko as the tall, mostly silent brother of Powell, known simply as Old Shady. Champlin's Hawkins has several singular moments of note, with the most memorable being when she massacres a rattlesnake with a coffee pot one minute and serves up grilled snake the next. Mikheyenko's normally mute Old Shady shines forth when he breaks into self-created songs during campfire dinners, describing the evening's dinners with rib-tickling rhymes like "the fish makes my belly, smelly" (music composed and arranged by the actor herself).
The realities of this simulated excursion are greatly enhanced by the sounds of rushing waters, nighttime crickets, and slivering snakes by sound designer James Goode, who also uses a musical soundtrack that both reflects the campfire-appropriate songs of the time as well as calls on recognized, haunting melodies of Ken Burns' PBS series, "The Civil War." The latter choice reminds us that an expedition like this one is not only like the grind and drudgery but also the blood-pulsing excitement of a battlefield.
Edward Hunter's lighting helps define the swirling river while also creating a sense of awed grandeur of both day and night in the Grand Canyon. The costumes of Y. Sharon Peng smack of not-too-subtle humor as she dons these women-to-be-men and provides through their outfits a portrait of their eclectic backgrounds and personalities.
Unfortunately, time and again where this Palo Alto Players production falls short and diminishes the power of the story and of the actors' performances is in the direction of Lee Ann Payne. First and foremost, the director has chosen to insert an intermission in a one-hour, forty-minute play that normally (at least in my experience and research) is performed without one. In this production, the first half ends on a rather ridiculous line dance that fizzles as the lights suddenly go out while the actors shuffle off in silence.
The production overall has an uneven pace, slowing too often to a crawl where previous energy is lost (e.g., transitions between several scenes and at the point when the British aristocrat, Hall, departs the expedition). At other times, the stage becomes a frenzy of shouting and random-looking rushing about that appears not to have been choreographed carefully enough. Spoken lines are lost. Overboard men look at times more clownish than desperate as they flail about. Finally, rather than keeping the rocking, pitching boats focused downstream looking directly at the audience, the director chooses often to have them play follow-the-leader as they circle back-and-forth across the stage–a parade that does not work well on the Lucie Stern stage with too many turns that emphasize the bow-only boats' sawed-off natures and that thus lose the excitement of the dangerous river trip as crews too often come close to tripping over each other.
Where the director and cast do excel is the telling of the final couple of days and nights of the expedition. The painful decision of three men to leave, the reaction of Powell and the rest of those who choose to stay, the heartfelt sadness and also appreciation by all in the actual departure, and finally what happens soon after they leave–all is directed and acted with a genuine emotional component that underlines the brilliance of the playwright to tell this story of unknown, male misfits with a cast of actors who are not male.
With the powerful ending in this production of Jacklyn Backhaus's Men on Boats by Palo Alto Players, we leave fully appreciating that the forgotten names and legacies of these men here represented by women are most worthy of being remembered, honored and celebrated, for at least for one evening.
Men on Boats continues live performances through February 20, 2022, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. On-demand, streamed performances are available February 17-20. Tickets and information for both the live and streamed presentations are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.