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Men On Boats: A New Old Frontier

This Saturday, sophomore Staff Writer and aspiring champion of the arts Josh Tate went to see the Barnard theater department’s production of Men On Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus.

I’d heard some buzz around this play before I went to see it. It’s a premise I loved from the start: a play about ten frontiersmen lead by one-armed war veteran John Powell down the Colorado River through the grand canyon, charting a course for the U.S. Government. The catch? None of the actors are cisgender males. That’s right, this group of men vying for the honor of stealing the land, culture, and just about everything else from native people is played entirely in this case by women. And it’s just as great as it sounds.

The play starts in media res with a flourish of sound and all ten actors battling rapids with all the sputtering, punchy wit you’d expect. Amidst the imagined waves, profanity and oars are flying, the music is building, and suddenly, time stops, giving each boat an introduction from the crew members themselves. The crew consists of stunning caricatures of intrepid explorers. Among them, there’s the vicious hunter, the smooth cook, the badass set of brothers, and, of course, a naive and coddled Englishman. Some were there for the job, others the glory, most it seems were there for the hell of it: pursuing white water for sport. It becomes apparent early on that the greatest strength of the play lies in the actors, whose chemistry with each other and the script turned this into a spectacle. Specifically, Nina Lucy Locke (GS’20) spear-heads the performance by expertly playing Powell as a quick-witted and confident outdoorsman. Locke’s Powell is a character you’d love to love if you didn’t know the snake-oil he’s selling is manifest destiny and political gain. Viviana Prado-Núñez (CC’20) plays Dunn, an aggressive, ruthless, and at times brash trapper on the expedition in hopes of attaining glory by putting his name on a mountain. These two share the spotlight, demonstrating both intensity and nuance as they vie for control of the party and explore their own fraught friendship.

Other stand-out performances come specifically from Grace Henning (BC’20) who plays the loyal and brooding Sumner: a hunter and explorer looking to get out of the adventure alive and in one piece. Hers is a class in subtlety, playing a character built off of quiet masculinity and deadpan delivery in a sea of in your face humor and action. She commands the stage with respect and impeccable timing as the silent hunter of the party. Devin Hammond (BC’20) also stood out, playing Powell’s brother, Old Shady. He’s a figure both imposing and confusing in the most entertaining way, oscillating between a stoic, no-nonsense war vet and a seemingly unhinged figure looming in the background, breaking into song in the best and worse of times. Her performance added a different brand of comedy to the play and kept Old Shady an inscrutable force. Her singing is also so good I almost feel bad about laughing at the absurdity of them. Almost.

The play as a whole balances between time on the rapids and the crew’s downtime on the banks of the river, slowly shifting from a bright-eyed and naive start with the crew loaded up on whiskey, testosterone, and grit for days to an ending in which the crew is falling apart both in terms of equipment and personnel, several bowing out mid-expedition to an uncertain and ominous fate. Set and sound design greatly added to the performance and belief of the degradation of the crew, comprising entirely of several cloth boulders that rose and fell along with tensions, a bit of fog, and a swirling light from the ceiling that lit up the stage and set the tone and time. The creative simplicity of the set proved to be instrumental, lending itself to set changes that were snappy as the script and reflected the tone and intensity the actors were putting into the show.

 I’d also like to note the beauty of the costume design for each character. Each character is summed up well with their garb such as Dunn’s blood-lust represented by the red of his jacket and black fur of his collar, Goodman’s impractical and incredibly posh green outfit dripping with all the stereotypes of a British adventurer save a pith hat, and the many bits and bobs hanging off of Powell to help with his lack of an arm. One detail that impressed me most was how Powell and the character of Mr. Asa played also by Eliza Ducnuigeen (BC’21) who comes out at the end of the play and subsequently adopts his own role as hero for “saving” the adventurers seem to have the exact same pin. It serves as an interesting parallel and continuation of the motif of white men taking credit for that which isn’t theirs.

The story itself is compelling, playing off the expectations of what the old west might seem like as well as the realities of the exploration. This comes out most evidently when the character of Goodman played by Eliza Ducnuigeen (BC’21) decides to leave the expedition and Powell, Sumner, and Goodman are forced to venture to a Native American town and ask for a horse for Goodman to return home. Instead of being greeted by characters out of a John Wayne movie, Powell and his crew meet a more accurate portrait of Native Americans at this point in history who have been forced to speak English and wear the clothes of white men to negotiate their land. Immediately the bravado that’s been shown by Powell and his men seems less than necessary. Being so close to a town of people willing to help you and opting rather to nearly starve seems so pointless, so futile. It’s a great way of taking down a notch the myth of the west that grew from the dust-stained hands of white men and instead propose a more accurate and just as powerful view of manifest destiny. 

There are jabs at the myth of the west throughout the play, with conversations about who gets mountains named after them and how they’re the first to see the majesty of the land being followed up by some sly comment or dismissive pass at the people who were there first: a cognitive dissonance in the face of reality. And herein is the beauty of the play. Everything in the play is dripping with a cold and brutal irony behind the warm laughter and camaraderie of the men. Beneath the fiery monologue at delivered by Powell in defense of his leadership there’s a sense that these men are unaware of the fact that they are not just scouting ahead for conquest, but that their task is only a marvel to whites back East and their journey of firsts, their names, their geography is never theirs, to begin with. The ending drives this home with Powell standing at the end of the journey, the boulders now to the floor and the light an eerie pale white as he claims immortality through this adventure. With hands full of dust Powell is now the hero he wanted to be and the usher of atrocity and conquest. For a play as funny as this, it can scarcely get darker. 

Header via Bwog Staff

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