"Men on Boats," written by Jaclyn Backhaus, chronicles an 1869 expedition of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon led by Civil War veteran and geologist John Wesley Powell.
Though clearly a contemporary take on history, the script melds modern language with historical sources.
"(Backhaus) wrote it in the vernacular of today, but also incorporated some of John Wesley Powell's actual journal entries into the script. And there's a little bit of iambic pentameter thrown in just to keep it interesting," said Director Lee Ann Payne.
Walking the line between historical realism and artistic license can be a challenge, she said.
"Sometimes when you're doing something that's so historically accurate you can get lost in the sauce of making sure that it's historically accurate and not tell the story that the author intended," Payne said.
Though Backhaus drew on Powell's journal and other historical sources to write "Men on Boats," the amount of information available about each character (besides Powell) varies, said cast member Melissa Jones.
Jones portrays William Dunn, Powell's second in command. In researching Dunn, Jones found information about him was "thin," so she said she needed to rely more on the script for her characterization. The journey down the river was often perilous and Dunn was willing to challenge Powell, which can lead to seeing him as the antagonist, noted Jones, but "this is really a 'man versus nature' instead of 'man versus man' show."
The bulk of the play's action takes place in small boats on the Colorado River and it's entirely up to the cast, through choreographed movements, to create the illusion of the river's rough rapids and swells. Payne drew on her background as a choreographer to create scenes that conveyed the river's tumultuous waters.
"There's a huge amount of storytelling that happens on the river and there is some virtuosity in the actors handling the boats and handling the movement," Payne said, noting that this production forgoes even most props.
"We decided pretty early on we were going to do as much as we could with as little as we could — there's no ropes, even though (the script) says to throw ropes — we left a lot of it to be physicalized and I think that gave us more freedom. I think it gave us more urgency down the river as well," she said.
"Men on Boats" is physically demanding for the cast in part because the movements are so tailored to each situation the characters encounter, Jones said.
"The style of movement is different. There's a lot of tension in the motion because you're trying to portray going overboard or grabbing a rope to be pulled across the river so that you don't go overboard," she said, joking that her lung capacity has improved thanks to some challenging scenes, particularly one involving a waterfall.
But she said she enjoys the opportunity to do more physical theater and explained that it's not always easy for female and nonbinary actors to find roles that are both so fully realized and so physical.
"A lot of times female characters are foils for the male characters or their plot devices. It's not as common that you get to fully embody a nuanced, layered, conflicted character, and particularly one that gets to explore a full range of motion like this," Jones said.
For "Men on Boats," Backhaus wrote the characters with women and nonbinary actors in mind, and as Jones points out, encouraged diverse casting in her playwright's notes at the top of script. The casting isn't meant to change the history of the expedition — all the characters featured are male — but offer a more nuanced understanding of how we view history.
"I'm Chinese and there was a point a while ago where I really felt limited by the visibility of my ethnicity," Jones said. "And I've noticed that in the last maybe like five, six, seven years or so it's really opened up, but I really appreciate playwrights putting specific casting notes in their work to say, 'please cast diversely: body type, ethnicity, age, gender.' It's heartening to see that happening."
The casting not only serves as a reminder of who does or doesn't make it into the history books, but hints at the history we might never know, Jones said.
"History is written by the victors and it's written by the people who are in power, and so you have male explorers, and then male biographers and male newspaper writers. That's the point of view that you get, and it really erases the visibility of women.
"Women were not on this expedition, but that's not to say that women were not pioneering different achievements and advancements during this time. And a lot of that just gets buried, and so by having women portray these roles, it inserts a level of visibility into the time period artistically," Jones said.
As it is, Powell is hardly forgotten by history — among other things, he's credited with giving the Grand Canyon its current name — but not all audiences may know about the expedition, which offers an exciting possibility, Payne said.
"If there's a person in the audience who's never heard of the Powell expedition, the first time they hear the story, they're going to see it through the lens of female and nonbinary people telling the story," Payne said. "It does give you a fresh perspective on strength, and on fortitude, and on hubris, and on all those things that we associate a lot of times with the male adventurer."
Though the casting highlights history's omissions, the show itself has some unsung players, Jones said. Especially with the pandemic bringing a greater level of uncertainty, the show's understudies have to be ready to take on one of up to five roles, knowing all the characters' lines and precise choreography, she said.
"Men on Boats" will be performed in person through Feb. 20 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The show will also be livestreamed Feb. 17-20. For more information, visit paplayers.org.
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