Tuesday, May 21, 2024

"Men on Boats" at Theatre in the Round

As promised at the last Theatre in the Round show, their new production of Men on Boats includes neither men nor boats. Nothing against either, but having an all-female or non-binary cast telling the story of the first government sanctioned expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, with nary a boat on stage, is pretty clever. And it's utterly delightful - funny and playful, while still commenting on the ideas of Manifest Destiny, exploration, discovery, and masculinity. It's also a fun adventure tale, and having been on several wilderness adventures with all-female groups (including hiking in the Grand Canyon, and canoeing in the BWCAW), it kinda made me want to plan my next adventure. Maybe a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, although with better maps, equipment, and food than this group had. But if real-life adventuring isn't for you, you can safety join these non-men on their non-boat adventure at the oldest theater in Minneapolis, now through June 2.

In 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine other men set off on the Green River in Wyoming with four boats, eventually joining the Colorado River and passing through "the big canyon" (glad that name didn't stick). Three months later some of the men and some of the boats exited the canyon in Utah. This play tells the story of what happened in those three months, and introduces us to ten very different men who were there for different reasons. We see their triumphs (successfully navigating a difficult section of the river) and defeats (losing boats and supplies). There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek talk about naming things (that of course had long ago been named by the native peoples of the land), and the bravado attitude that not only did these men have the right to be there, they were doing something good for their country. But in the end, when they reached their destination and accomplished their goal of traversing the canyon, there was a sense of disappointment, at least in this telling of the story. Because as the saying goes, it truly is not about the destination, it's about the journey, and these men had one heck of a journey.

"men" in "boats" navigating a difficult turn in the river
(photo by Tom Taintor)
But of course, in this play they're not men. A fantastic team of ten female or non-binary actors (many of whom were new to me, some of them recent grads or still in school), bring the story, the boats, and the river to such vivid life that I almost got a little seasick at times. Under the direction of Sophie Peyton, with movement by Kelly Nelson, they're all so playful and present, starting from before the play even begins, as they wander on stage and check their gear. Then, after the pre-show announcement from a board member, the stage manager tells the cast to start when ready, and the lights dim as the play begins. The storytelling continues through the end of the play, when the cast slowly removes some of their costume pieces to reveal street clothes underneath, the lights come up, and they take a bow. Acknowledging that we've all been on this adventure of the imagination together. The sense of play is felt throughout, as the cast groups together in lines of twos, threes, or fours, with wooden poles in their hands, simulating the motion of a boat. They go literally all over the space, up and down the stairs, on landings at the top of the stairs, and climbing over "rocks" built around one of the entrances. They somehow manage to create a feeling of suspense, not knowing if they're going to make it through this imagined obstacle.

Powell (Marguerite Arbogast) and Dunn
(Antonia Gbai) survey the scene
(photo by Tom Taintor)
As our leader Powell, Marguerite Arbogast is wonderful, confident yet showing vulnerability (Powell lost an arm in the war). Everyone in the ensemble (Amanda Espinoza, Lois Estell, Antonia Gbai, Krystile Igbo-Ogbonna, LaReina LaPlante, Courtney Matula, Erika Soukup, Noë Tallen, and Tic Treitler) is so great in their role, giving each character a personality and a specificity, carrying both even into silent moments. With the palpable sense of teamwork and camaraderie, I'd follow this group anywhere!  

The cast works and plays together so well, in pairs or trios or even as a group. For most of the play, the entire cast on stage, always in character even when off to the side. We also get a few smaller character scenes with just a few of the "men." I almost wonder if they were given lessons on how to move like a man - standing with feet wide apart and shoulders back, awkward about any contact, and having a lot of fun doing it. The clothing must help; they're dressed in late 19th Century adventuring or military garb, from the more rustic hunters, looking like Davy Crockett, to the more formal ex-military, to the British gentleman's refined clothing not quite fit for the task. The design team has created a wonderful playground for this story, with a sort of island in the middle of the in-the-round space and a multi-leveled "bank" on one side, creating dimension and a feeling of the outdoors. The red rocks of the canyon surround the space on all sides, lit up to reveal their glory. (Set design by MJ Leffler, lighting design by Bill Larson, costume design by Clair Looker.)

Men on Boats might be my favorite play of Theatre in the Round's 72nd season (so far, they've still got one more, and adaptation of the beloved novel A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time). It's very much my kind of play: a modern retelling of history that's modern and feminist and fun. The performances of this great cast combined with lovely design just might make you think, if you squint your eyes a little, that you're in the big canyon itself. Only with more and better snacks.