Go for the scenery.
Seriously, go see Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus at Silver Spring Stage for the majestic, hand-painted, cyclorama-inspired backdrop of the Colorado River area by Jim Haynes, a local graphic designer and watercolorist.
The play is lifted up by this striking backdrop and also by a spirited cast of ten performers—all female and nonbinary—playing male historical figures, which is the playwright’s intention. This casting was seen as a radical point of departure in 2015 when the play premiered at Playwright’s Horizon in Manhattan; however, it is less radical in tone in this buoyant Silver Spring Stage production. The politics of casting as a gender-bending commentary on patriarchy fall flat—not quite “dated” but not quite fresh anymore.
Men on Boats reimagines the “Powell Expedition,” an 1869 expedition, led by John Wesley Powell, to explore and map the Grand Canyon rivers by boat. However, the larger journey of this show, as noted by director Erin Bone Steele in her playbill note, is even more ambitious: to examine how the very act of storytelling changes when the bodies telling the tale are exactly those who’ve been excluded from the history books.
The play is visually, aurally, and emotionally engaging without the portaging of politics. The performances, full of swagger and humor, hit many right marks. Stephanie Dorius, as expedition leader John Wesley Powell, commands the stage with her brio and bravado. Erica Smith, as O.G. Howland, has just the right amount of toughness as she pinches tobacco from the supplies. And Amanda Matousek, as George Young Bradley, a youthful Civil War veteran, is a jubilant presence striking all the comic marks.
Leena S. Dev plays Old Shady, a crotchety pioneer with a beautiful voice that rings out—tin fish, tin fish, tin fish time—among other shanties. Dev leading the acapella singing was an aural delight that made me imagine, however briefly, that we were all under the stars with her.
The rest of the crew—played by Jenny Gleason, Kate Yee, Charlie Williams, Jill Goodrich, Melissa Blum, and Hope Weltman—round out the cast, which under Steele’s deft direction, transports the Silver Spring Stage back, for the most part, to 1869. Perhaps because I was so engaged with the actors and the story, the gender-bending aspect designated by the playwright did not feel like an agent of change.
Rich Frangiamore’s river-rustling-roaring sound design, with rock-strewn passages and cascading waterfalls, brought forth the danger of running the unmapped rapids of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Rose Hull’s overall set design was simple and effective. And Jennifer Morrissey’s historical costumes with whimsical modern-day touches such as heart-strewn longjohns were also highlights. Don Slater’s lighting design could have been more dramatic during the most treacherous river scenes.
In 2023, in the Washington, DC, area, when there are so many extraordinary productions that celebrate blind casting—and thus rethink or re-envision the act of storytelling, Men on Boats did not feel radical or break-through. Ultimately though, this production of Men on Boats does make one ponder. The exuberance of the performers and the staging, and yes, that majestic scenic backdrop, make this a worthwhile journey. While the play doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as it did in 2015, it is worth seeing for the performances, and for the journey heart of the play.
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.
COVID Safety: Silver Spring Stage requires all audience members to be masked. For more on their COVID-19 policy, visit their website.