by Gabriella De Brequet
Men on Boats is a genderbent semi-historical comedy about John Wesley Powell’s 1863 expedition to map the the Colorado River’s passage through the Grand Canyon with ten explorers, four boats, and slim rations. I was delighted to discover that not only is the playwright a woman (Jaclyn Backhaus), but Something Something’s production is directed by a woman (Jasmine Roth), stage managed by a woman (Shannon Harral), production designed by a woman (Madeline Greenwalt), and all of the characters are intentionally written to be played by trans or cis women! In reading the notes on the playwright I discovered that Backhaus included a casting note into her play instructing directors to cast racially diverse actresses who are cisgender or female identifying. As a queer person myself, I felt safe in the room I was sitting in, and I felt proud to be supporting a queer friendly theatre in Tucson.
The play follows ten explorers on four boats as they battle with each other and the elements to serve the United States government. The stakes are high and they struggle to get along with each other in close quarters and to find basic resources on their journey. The play deals with themes such as doubt, fear, and loyalty and friendship. There were some incredibly strong performances from some ensemble members. Maryann Green’s Dunn was particularly compelling. She took the stakes very seriously, and even when she wasn’t speaking, her subtext was clear. Kimberly Swanson’s Old Shady was incredibly lovable. Timea Post’s Hall and Analiese Bloom’s Hawkins were a perfect comedy duo, and Christine Peterson’s Goodman and Hannah Taylor’s Powell were strong and poignant.
Although there were some great performances from individual actors, I felt that the ensemble as a whole could have been a little more connected to each other. I found this to be a hiccup for the ensemble when the stakes were intended to be high. While some actors took the moments of danger in the boats and at camp seriously, some others did not. This ultimately made it more difficult for me to connect to the drama unfolding. I wish there had been more of a juxtaposition between the comedy and the drama throughout. Often the comedy was played through the danger and it didn’t quite serve the play.
The action in the boats happened downstage and into the audience, breaking the fourth wall to bring us into the narrative. This staging challenged the modern audience’s viewing experience, was fun to watch, and worked incredibly well for the structure of the play. I felt that there were some missed opportunities with the scene changes. The scene changes were done in black out, and in such a small space with that many props it would have been great to watch the characters help each other out of their boats and congratulate each other on a successful journey instead of watching actors stumble in a blackout.
The set design was simple, clear, and effective. The camp site set was made up of spare windows and spare wood pieced together to create a makeshift home. The props were great for practicality, stage business, and for setting the scene, and the lighting design worked well to create a distinction between the camps, and action in the boats. The technical elements worked well together to set the mood and support the play. Men on Boats is an incredibly well written play and I had a ton of fun watching it! This production is a huge victory for Something Something Theatre. Men on Boats is an exciting must see and a perfect season opener for Something Something Theatre!
Men on Boats runs through October 28 at the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Arts. Tickets are $20 for students and seniors and $25 for general admission. You can purchase tickets on Something Something Theatre’s website somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by calling their box office at 520-468-6111.