Entertainment » Theatre

Men On Boats

by Clinton Campbell
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 12, 2017
The cast of "Men On Boats" presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company through October 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts.
The cast of "Men On Boats" presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company through October 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts.  (Source:Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.)

SpeakEasy Stage is launching their 27th season with the gender bending adventure comedy, "Men On Boats" by Jaclyn Backhaus which chronicles John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition to map the Grand Canyon.

The play has received much hype due to the playwright's requirement that, although it is a dramatization of historical events lived by cisgender while males, the company should only consist of "racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming."

It is a laudable (and overdue) restriction and due to this requirement, many have made comparisons to the hit show "Hamilton." A show also firmly grounded in diverse casting at its core as well as the idea of reclaiming "who gets to tell our history."

However, the comparison ends there. "Hamilton" tells its history not just from new voices, but in new and inventive ways. It has a point of view. "Men On Boats" -- despite a couple of lewd references and some minor cursing -- never transcends passed the level of K-12 educational drama. It lacks a point of view.

One scene later in the show, when the explorers interact with a local Native American tribe, gives a glimmer of just how provocative and interesting the show could be... if it just wasn't so pedantic.

That said, the ensemble cast is fantastic from start to finish. Director Dawn M. Simmons does an especially outstanding job in establishing the interpersonal connections between the characters. And there are several amusing moments that are entirely character driven.

Particularly enjoyable are Robin JaVonne Smith's commanding performance as Powell, Mal Malme's dry and sardonic Old Shady, and Lyndsay Allyn Cox's performances as both O.G. and the Native American Tsauwiat.

Scenically, Jenna McFarland Lord's set seems a bit too large and too heavy handed. But it also seems appropriate for a play that wants to carry more weight than it does.

It would be wonderful to see this group of actors come together again in another play. For now, we have them in "Men On Boats" -- if only it were as thrilling as the rapids of the Colorado River.

"Men On Boats" continues through October 7 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center of the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company website.


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