A Grand Adventure – a review of “Men in Boats”

by Michael Buzzelli

In 1869, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell (Haley Holmes) was appointed to President  James A. Garfield to take  a group of men on  an exploratory mission down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon (as it would be named later). Playwright Jacklyn Backhaus delves into Powell’s journals  of that fateful expedition in a bright, imaginative way in “Men in Boats.”

First, there are no men in “Men in Boats.” The cast is made up of women and non-binary actors.  It is the single most fascinating thing about the play.  Gender doesn’t matter.

The men in the boats were Jack Sumner (Isabella Duran Shedd), William Dunn (Chloe Chamberlin), Walter “Old Shady” Powell (CG Squire), the Howland Brothers, Oramel (Esther Lee) and Seneca (Ariela Pineda Salgado) among others.

They journeyed on boats that the group named “Emma Dean (after Powell’s wife),” “Kitty Clyde’s Sisters,” “Maiden of the Canyon,” and “No Name.”

While Powell professes brotherhood, we quickly learn that brotherhood is not a noble tie that binds all human hearts and minds. Many of the men are seeking fame or glory, particularly William Dunn . There relationship is contentious, but it is Frank Goodman (Hattie Baier) who is the first to abandon the mission.

Additional Historical side note: When the Howland’s leave with Dunn, they name the point of departure Separation Canyon.

Archive photo of one of Powell’s boats.

While the subject is serious, “Men in Boats” is a delightful little trip. It’s a playful reimagination of historical events. Backhaus’s script is sharp, but a little too repetitious. While I wasn’t rooting for any of the men to die, boredom crept in as they continued to survive every deadly encounter.  Their continued survival sucked the suspense out of the show. Any deaths that may have actually occurred happened off stage.

Side note: It’s possible that some of the explorers were killed by the Shivwits band of Paiutes, a native American tribe who believed that Powell’s men were encroaching on their terrority.

The acting is superb.  Cheers to the entire ensemble. Sha Cage’s direction is frenetic, exciting and fun.

Holmes is terrific as the leading person. Like the real Powell must have been, you can see the gleam in their eye at each new discovery, their steadfast determination.

Goodman, an Englishman, is the butt of a few of the jokes. The character has a lovely little monologue about retreating to Provence, France, and Baier’s accent is spot on, old chap!

A good deal of comic relief comes from the cook, Hawkins (Kaitlyn Hare), who delivers her lines like Hawkins doles out biscuits – with flair.

Under Backhaus’s writing, each personality shines. The men in the boats are very different from each other. Adventure, however, works better in films than on stage.

Daniel Allen’s scenic design is brilliant. There’s a small tributary around the set, a two inch gulley of water surrounding a long island. Propped up on the island are the remnants of the boats. On one end of the theater space there is an immense rock wall expertly lit in crimson hues by Madelyn Miessmer.  Strewn about the stage are Cedar Sage Ellwood’s very authentic looking props.

While there are flaws in the script, Point Park’s production of “Men in Boats” is well crafted, and it’s an amazing exploration of history told in  a unique way.

– MB

“Men in Boats” runs from March 15 – 19 at the Highmark Theatre, In the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here

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