By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Wikipedia lists some 24 female American explorers, so it’s a bit of a headscratcher why playwright Jaclyn Backhaus chose to write a play about John Wesley Powell’s all-male trip down the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon and call for a female cast.
But the result is on display in “Men on Boats,” directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed and playing through April 22 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.
It’s billed as a comedy, and it’s certainly played that way. After all, it’s easy to poke fun at men and their silly (to women) need to swagger around and dominate anything not previously claimed, even to put their name on it.
For my money, though, exploring an unknown river that can as easily kill you as carry you to your destination is no laughing matter, nor is being reduced to eating snakes — or less — for dinner.
These 10 “men” are hard-driving, harder-drinking guys of varying capabilities and personalities and the willingness to take rough conditions and bad (if any) food for granted. Five are Civil War veterans. None had any experience with whitewater navigation. Only six would return. Several of them would end their lives drunkards rather than celebrated explorers.
New Village Arts artistic director Kristianne Kurner plays Powell, the one-armed (but always upbeat) expedition leader, surrounded by a diverse group of nine, who begin their journey in Wyoming with four small boats.
Milena (Sellers) Phillips is great as Powell’s grumpy older brother (and fellow Civil War vet) Old Shady.
Samantha Ginn, always a welcome presence, is a hoot as the cook Hawkins.
New arrival Nancy Ross is fun to watch as the scrappy Dunn, who thinks he should be leading this expedition. Joy Yvonne Jones plays mapmaker Hall with quiet dignity.
Brianna Dodson brings energy to the role of the young Bradley, and recent UCSD grad Paloma Dominguez impresses as the upbeat Sumner.
Tiffany Tang amuses as Goodman, the lone Brit, who quickly tires of this adventure and decides to leave the group: “Fearing for my life twice in one week doesn’t bode well for the rest of my trip.”
Powell suggests he take Goodman to a Ute township he knows, saying they could point Goodman to a nearby Mormon settlement.
Melba Novoa and Tamara McMillian play the Howland brothers OG and Seneca nicely, and also get a hilarious turn as wry, near-hippie Ute Indians, who respond to Sumner and Powell’s questions with interjections like “Wow” and “That’s so chill.”
Christopher Scott Murillo’s set is necessarily simple – the rough terrain is indicated by tall movable reddish pillars representing the steep cliffs, but it gets the job done. Elisa Benzoni has designed authentic-looking costumes, and Sarah Schwartz’s lighting is effective.
But the star of the production team is Melanie Cole Chen, whose spectacular sound design adds immeasurably to the goings-on.
“Men on Boats” is, of course, a misnomer, since we see neither men nor boats onstage, and the only suggestion of water is portrayed in rear-screen projections. The actions of rowing, shooting rapids, going over waterfalls and even capsizing is pantomimed.
But the real problem with this production comes in the harrowing moments when they go over a waterfall or shoot rapids. Everybody screams, but let’s face it, women scream in a higher register than men. Ten women screaming at once equals way too much screeching for my tired old ears to take. Perhaps the ladies could be talked into yelling in a lower register. You get used to it after a while, but I still couldn’t escape the nagging “Why?” that plagued me throughout.
Though “Men on Boats” will never be a favorite of mine, Coleman-Reed is to be congratulated for wrestling this unruly piece into some semblance of a play.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.