Men on Boats is a sometimes rollicking, at other times tedious, one-act play.
Men on Boats, by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Staged by Speak Easy Stage Co., Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA, through October 7.
By Robert Israel
In 1869, an expedition started off to chart the course of the Colorado River. The adventure was led by explorer John Wesley Powell and his rough and wooly crew, the “men” in the title of Jaclyn Backhaus’s – sometimes rollicking, at other times tedious – one-act play.
Before discussing the play’s virtues and shortcomings, a word about the playwright’s specifications for the cast. She decreed that the “men” in the cast be “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, (her word) and/or non-gender conforming.”
SpeakEasy Stage Company has complied with her wishes. The ten member cast includes Gold Dust Theater’s Robin JaVonne Smith as John Wesley Powell, Queer Soup Theater’s Mal Malme as Old Shady, and a trans actor, Cody Sloan, who plays Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa.
But hasn’t the theater, unlike other American institutions, historically been a place where all actors — regardless of race, color or creed — performed without discrimination? Yiddish, Gay, Feminist, Black, and Asian troupes have attracted audiences for many years. Why this specification now?
SpeakEasy’s artistic director, Paul Daigneault, responds that the believes that the playwright’s requirement forces audiences to“look at history differently, and…consider not only the stories that are traditionally told but also the stories of those who are not often included…”
Well intentioned enough, but theatergoers – unless they carefully read the credits – do not know all these backgrounds and particulars. They experience – as I did – the production itself, which succeeds or fails on the strengths of its writing, direction, stagecraft, set design, and, yes, the diverse talents of its cast, gender-bending or not.
The cast, most of them newcomers to the company, sometimes step lively and sometimes flounder under the linguistic weight of the script, which peppers 19th century dialog into 21st century lingo. The staging, under the able talents of director Dawn Simmons, highlights the physicality of the expedition – there’s lots of stomping feet and robust huzzahs – which often means that individual speeches sometimes become lost in the shuffle.
One of the standouts in the cast is Hayley Spivey, who plays crewmember Bradley. She’s unfailingly spirited and sprightly, delivering her lines with aplomb. Several comic moments in the production showcase her promise.
Robin Smith is not as winning as Powell, the expedition leader. The performer hasn’t the voice or presence to project indomitable leadership. She is often drowned out by the noise on stage. Cody Sloan, as Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa, tortures attempts at a British accent and has limited stage presence.
The production supplies moments of brio. A scene in which the men stomp out their affection for whiskey is splendid, as they raise the whiskey jug and chant their devotion to old John Barleycorn himself. But in other scenes, particularly when they tromp about the stage to dramatize difficult stony passages along the way, the characters look and sound like a late-night Americana conga line. The playwright could help matters considerably by varying these choreographed ramblings downriver, making them staccato rather than lengthy, and setting them apart from the dialogue.
Agree or disagree with the playwright’s request about the casting, the production entertains when it comes together as a performance piece — Men on Boats is fine when it stops whooping it up and just tells its story well. The real life journey was necessarily a rocky one — charting the unknown, giving names to new hunks of territory — but there is no need for a show about the trip to lose its way.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.