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‘Men on Boats’: Torrents of fun on adventure of a lifetime | Review

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 1/27/2020 By Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel

When I hiked out of the Grand Canyon last fall, I knew I’d find a restaurant, a freshly made bed and air conditioning at the end of the trail. The men of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Colorado River had no such assurances. “Men on Boats,” onstage at Mad Cow Theatre, tells their story with a twist: All the roles are played by women.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus deftly weaves human storytelling with high adventure as she details the hardships faced by the expedition: Whirlpools, moldy flour, rattlesnakes. Director Rebekah Lane also gets that balance right, using movement and rhythm to make the boating sequences exude both fun and danger — and then leave the thought of danger in the air for the more intimate, interpersonal scenes.

In a trip fraught with peril, there is bound to be conflict. In this case, it’s mostly between Powell and William Dunn, who second guesses his leader and worries the men will never make it out of the canyon alive. This comes straight from the history books; the entire show is based on the truth, with theatrical embellishment in imagining individual conversations. The theatrical arts also effectively come into play, with Eric Craft’s lighting and painted scenic design suggesting that the audience is watching a story.

Always reliable, Cynthia Beckert embodies the spirit of good-natured adventure as Powell, while Allison Piehl proves a prickly foil as Dunn. Ana Martinez Medina and Ema Pava are slyly amusing as a pair of brothers who side with Dunn. Laurel Hatfield is laser focused as Hall, the expedition mapmaker, while Iris Lynne Sherman puts a humorous twist on the idea of a “grizzled veteran.”

The laughs mainly come organically from the characters, but those called upon to be more obviously comical also succeed: Hilary Kelly delights as a British dilettante who finds out he’s in over his head.

So why women? I’m not sure there’s a straightforward answer for that — and the play itself is strong enough that I’m not sure it matters. It’s easier to explain what the women do not do. Thankfully, director Lane does not have her performers behave like caricatures of men with the Neanderthal-like spitting and crotch-grabbing. Playwright Backhaus doesn’t indicate that women would have had an easier time of it, gotten along better, or been more rational in their approach.

Rather, “Men on Boats” seems to say that the spirit of discovery, of curiosity, of adventure, of excitement can be found in any human. Because of the times then, Powell’s expedition had an all-male crew. Because of the times now, their story can be told by women. And in this case, that’s as exhilarating as the first view of Grand Canyon’s marbled cliffs.

‘Men on Boats’

Length: 90 minutes, no intermission

Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St. in Orlando

When: Through Feb. 9

Cost: $30-$42

Info: madcowtheatre.com

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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