“Men on Boats” is a play that gets many things right… and yet somehow ends up not quite hitting its target.
Here’s the setup. Stick with me a minute, it’s a little complicated and there’s a bit of history that helps you understand what the play’s up to.
Let me take you back to the 1800’s and manifest destiny: the idea that the white man’s expansion into the western United States was not only inevitable but part of some grand … well, destiny. So you’ve got this massive uncharted territory to the west of the Mississipi that you need to conquer. You need a bunch of heroic souls willing to risk life and limb to map this terra incognita - think Lewis and Clark.
So in 1869, as part of this destiny, a one-armed civil war vet named John Wesley Powell set off with 9 men and 4 boats to survey the Colorado River from Wyoming through the Grand Canyon. Hence the title “Men on Boats.” This expedition didn’t go so well. Boats were lost, food was lost, lives were lost - a big mess.
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus takes this historical expedition as the inspiration for her play - but she doesn’t want us to see this as heroic tale of fated male conquest so she’s written those “Men on Boats” as female actors playing guys.
The concept has the potential to be a sort of searing examination of masculinity and American arrogance. At its best, the play hints at this. There’s a brilliant scene about half way through when our explorers have lost a boat and things are getting rough, and they seek out assistance from a native American tribe. Ms. Backhaus writes the dialogue with the sort of wry, knowing, historical irony of a snarky twitter post.
Replying to the white men’s astonishment that these natives know how to speak English they reply, “We learned a long time ago. When we started land negotiations with white people … yeah, it was cool. They let us keep our birth lands, so we were pretty stoked. … Yeah, we were pretty stoked, yeah. “The Generosity,” you know?”
But if this is the promise of the play - a sort of critical re-examination of our own brutal past and macho idiocy - it never really manages to really move beyond initial conceit.
We spend a lot of time in boats struggling with a wild river. The structure of the play is fiercely episodic so once you tease out the rhythm of river-moment-battling-nature and moment-on-shore-taking-stock - you get ahead of the expedition pretty quickly. I can imagine a really lovely physical world where the struggle with the river becomes something of a movement ballet - and the production flirts with that. The *boats* are realized with ladders and scaffolding. The river: large sheets of painter’s plastic. But after the second or third frenetic rapid scene everything starts to blur together.
Part of that is a directorial struggle and part of that is a challenge with structure. Son of Semele’s production never really manages to crack the play’s tone
Even with these shortcomings, “Men on Boats” is headed in the right direction but like the original expedition - it’s a bumpy ride.
“Men on Boats” plays at the Son of Semele on the edge of Silver Lake through July 28th.