At UMD, cross-gender-cast ‘Men on Boats’ sail wonderfully into the new West

This University of Maryland ensemble was truly strong. There were beautiful and heartbreaking moments, and they tackled each one with grace.

From the first swell to the final waterfall, men in boats is exactly what makes Men on Boats an enjoyable ride.

O.G. Howland (Alaina ‘AJ’ Jenkins), Hawkins (J. Royal Miller), John Wesley Powell (Gab Ryan), John Colton Sumner (Ilana Mongilio), and William Dunn (Katrina Marinelli) navigate the rapids in the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of ‘Men on Boats.’ Photo by David Andrews.

Jacklyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats is largely based on John Wesley Powell’s journals from his 1869 expedition along the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon. We are introduced to each endearing character based on their assigned boats. The Emma Dean is captained by Powell and crewed by trapper William Dunn and John Colton Sumner, a proto–Bear Grylls. The No-Name is crewed by the Howland brothers, O.G. and Seneca. They are joined by the hapless Brit, Frank Goodman. Next, we meet the youthful and naive George Young Bradley alongside the wizened Old Shady (Captain Powell’s older brother) aboard Kitty Clyde’s Sister. Finally, we meet the troupe’s cook, William Robert Hawkins, and the mapmaker Andrew Hall, the crew of the Maid of the Canyon. The plot is fairly straightforward —  this motley crew of misfits make their way along the dangers of the Colorado River to explore the new world of the American West. They face hardships galore, boats are broken, and friendships are tested. There is threat of mutiny. But mostly there is an overwhelming desire to be the “first” to see and name the beautiful landmarks of the new West.

DUNN: Well the Natives have lived in these lands for centuries.
POWELL: Well, they’ve also probably named all this land already. And here we are, naming it after ourselves.

Walking into the Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, audiences are greeted by the sounds of wild birds and a rushing river (sound designer, Sam Crawford). The stage is set with faux footlights, and the boxes are filled with cacti and weathered travelers’ gear. There are burnt umber crags on either side of the stage and a scrim in the center shows a shifting projection of what we can assume is the real Powell and crew banking their boats in the distance (scenic designer, Gavin Mosier; lighting designer, Christina Kouni Laverty; projection designer, Leo Grierso). The aesthetic was that of an illustration in an old Prentice Hall history textbook. As the crowd settled in and the lights dimmed, the audience was transported to the dark blue world of the raging Colorado River.

I honestly do not think I can properly do these boat scenes justice — it is truly a sight to see. The choreography of the boats was impressive, immaculate, and often hysterical. The performers rocked to the same rhythms and carried with their voices the frantic nature of seeing your fellow members work their way through a particularly dangerous swell. And when the boats capsize or are caught up in a rogue whirlpool, the performers not only maneuver a shifting boat as if it is sinking around them, but they also roll and twist and skitter across the stage, truly giving the impression of a body caught up in the raging currents around them. These tragic moments were handled with equal parts humor and gravity, a feat unto itself.

The cast of the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of ‘Men on Boats. Photo by David Andrews.

Gab Ryan was a standout as the group’s charismatic leader, Powell. She commanded the stage with gravitas, playing the role as serious as a heart attack, even among some of the most absurd scenes (climbing a cliffside with one arm was a particular highlight). Her counterpart, Katrina Marinelli as Dunn, reminded me of some of my own family in Appalachia. From petting her beaverskin cap with gratitude to standing up for what she fervently believed was the safest path for the group, Marinelli brought humor and heart to the role. Ilana Mongilio’s Sumner was a treat, and the Howland Brothers, played by the charming Alaina (AJ) Jenkins and the captivating Precious Ogunsola, were also highlights, especially in their alternate roles as Johnson and Just Jim, the liaisons for the Ute tribe. With piercing wit and fourth-wall-breaking aplomb, they were the heavy-handed conscience of the natives that already lived in the “undiscovered” West. Katie Quinn as the young and excitable Bradley was a bubble of joy caught within a field of prickly cactus. The “party boat,” featuring Sabrina Lenett and J. Royal Miller, also had some lovely moments — their friendship was adorable and Miller’s fight with a snake is another great bit. Lucy Bond’s Frank Goodman was wonderful. Her character arc from outsider to family to deserter (the only character arc I could find in the script at all) was well executed. And despite a rather tricky mustache, Bond was a jolly sport throughout the production. When we see them again at the end of the play as the deus ex machina Ms. Asa, she is an angelic Colonel Sanders, sweeping us up in the closing exposition of the story. But perhaps my favorite performance of the evening was Drew Okoye’s Old Shady. Their stoic delivery and perfect comedic timing never missed. And their rendition of “Tin Fish” had the entire audience in tears of laughter.

This ensemble cast was truly a strong group of performers — it’s just a shame that the script was not up to the task of supporting their talent and camaraderie. There were beautiful moments (seeing the canyon for the first time) and heartbreaking moments (I’ve never been more upset about an apple in my life), and they tackled each one with grace. The abrupt ending and the lack of character development were the fault of the script entirely. I was thrilled by the cross-gender casting of the production, but I was ultimately disappointed by the lack of interrogation of the concept. Despite the plot and actions of the production being dangerous and tragic, the writing was comedic, leaving me wondering at times if a moment of humor was intentional or an accident prompted by opening night jitters.

All in all, this production co-directed by KenYatta Rogers and Elena Velasco is definitely worth seeing. Despite the pitfalls of the script, the strong ensemble cast and the impossibly wonderful boat choreography make the production a delight to see.

Running Time: Two hours, no intermission.

Men on Boats plays through March 9, 2024, presented by the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies performing at the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Dr., College Park, MD. Purchase tickets ($25, general public; $10, students and youth) online.

 The program for Men on Boats is online here.

COVID Safety: While strongly encouraged, masks are no longer required. See the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Health & Safety policy here.

Men on Boats
By Jacklyn Backhaus
Co-directed by KenYatta Rogers and Elena Velasco

Scenic Designer: Gavin Mosier
Costume Designer: Colin Franz
Lighting Designer: Christina Kouni Laverty
Projection Designer: Leo Grierson
Sound Designer: Sam Crawford
Stage Manager: Erin Sanders

John Wesley Powell: Gab Ryan
William Dunn: Katrina Marinelli
John Colton Sumner: Ilana Mongilio
Old Shady: Drew Okoye
Bradley: Katie Quinn
O.G. Howland/Johnson: Alaina (AJ) Jenkins
Seneca Howland/Just Jim: Precious Ogunsola, Àjíkẹ́
Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa: Lucy Bond
Hall: Sabrina Lenett
(WR) Hawkins: J. Royal Miller

John Wesley Powell: Hannah Alisse Collins
William Dunn: Nekko Sanders
John Colton Sumner: Gabriella Loshin
Old Shady: Thomas Raff
Bradley: Nina Omatsola
O.G. Howland/Johnson: Aida Nyabingi
Seneca Howland/Just Jim: Elizabeth Enworom
Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa: Nani Gildersleeve
Hall: Sophie Bagheri


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