Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus plays a delicious joke with “Men on Boats.” By basing the play on the historical exploits of a real group of explorers and specifying that the cast be made up of — Backhaus’ own script directions here — “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.” The playwright takes aim at the fact that much of world history (and certainly the history of the United States) has been authored by straight white males.
“Men on Boats” (running through Oct. 8 in a SpeakEasy Stage Company production at the Boston Center for the Arts) offers both a lacerating critique and a humorous reinterpretation of the macho mythologies that have long sustained our romance with the long-vanished American frontier. The story takes place in 1869 and ushers its characters along the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon, with various disasters and conflicts cropping up along the way. But the pleasure here lies solely in the journey; once you appreciate and digest the play’s sketch comic sensibilities start to wear thin. And even though the runtime is only about an hour and a half, the play feels 20 minutes too long.
It has to be said though, that the 10 actors cast for this production make the most of it. With high-spirited pantomime they depict the hazards their three boats face on the river, white water and whirlpools among them. Dry land throws up perils in kind: There’s a hilarious moment when the guys lapse into screaming panic at the sight of a snake. The acting is calibrated for maximum effect — campy, yes, but with consistently razor-sharp timing.
Robin JaVonne Smith plays expedition leader John Wesley Powell, a man with a forceful personality but also a keenly discerning intelligence. These gifts more than make up for a physical impairment; Powell has only one arm, which means there are certain things he cannot do, such as help row the boat.
Powell’s crew includes the glory-thirsting William Dunn (Veronika Duerr), the slightly dishonest O.G. Howland (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), a wealthy British man named Frank Goodman (Cody Sloan), who is more or less along for the ride out of curiosity, and the comically imperturbable Old Shady (Mal Malme), who at first seems shy or perhaps taciturn, but turns out to be both rock-steady and good for a song or two when the chips are down. Ally Dawson, Bridgette Hayes, Alice Kabia, Hayley Spivey and Ellie van Amerongen play the rest of the cadre; some actors play double parts, as with a handful of Ute Indians who prove helpful, if somewhat exasperated at the bumbling and self-important ways of interlopers intent on putting their own names on every geological feature in sight.
Backhaus doubles down on her historical bait and switch by having the characters speak and interact in ways that feel completely contemporary. (“I mean… I smoke when I’m stressed,” one character states in a memorable laugh line, sounding like a teen at a mall.) There’s no antiquated or formal language here; these rough and ready adventurers fling raw profanities and dry insults worthy of champion internet trolls and Twitter users, and in many passages, you feel a sense of irony emanating off them.
Director Dawn M. Simmons embraces the play’s sense of knowing contrast, and the design work follows suit. The set (by the always inventive Jenna McFarland Lord) looks as rugged and physically challenging as a ropes course. Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costuming looks so perfect you could swear it comes from a Western filmed in Cinemascope, circa 1955. Abby Shenker’s props (including three cleverly sketched “boats” that are really nothing more than wood frames designed to collapse into flat stacks) have the kind of economy that lets the play flow free of unnecessary encumbrance. Daisy Long’s lighting is almost painterly at key moments, and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design evokes everything from placid mornings to the roaring rush of wild water — plus, Cahill uses some sizzling bluegrass music to help sustain the play’s momentum.
All in all, “Men on Boats” carries a satiric sting you’ll remember even if many of the scenic points along this particular river fade quickly from view.
“Men on Boats” continues through Oct. 8, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts.
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