Review: ‘Men on Boats’ Blurs Genders in Recalling John Wesley Powell’s Expedition

The cast isn’t quite what it seems in this Jaclyn Backhaus play set in the 1869 American West.

Comments: 13

  1. Hasn't this big transgender push about jumped the shark when the Kardashian clan gets in on it?

  2. The show is not about transgender identity. It just happens to have two performers in the cast who identify that way.

  3. What a wonderfully written review! It makes me want to go to NYC to see the show.

  4. I read "Exploration..." about 30 years ago and the image of one-armed Powell hanging from a cliff-face by his finger-tips has never left me. Powell struck me as a lunatic, a madman of discipline, a bully, and an absolute adventurer. I would have fled the whole bunch of them, god save us from such "men of purpose", but I would give my left arm (or would it be my right?) to see what has been created here.
    Bravo to whoever dreamed this one up!

  5. If jarring inconsistencies creep into a period piece the fault lies with the actors and the creative team, not with any inherent difficulties of recreating the past. Portraying 19th century mores while speaking in 21st century vernacular is one failing that comes to mind.

    As to the gender identification of the actors, who cares? Identifying yourself as something or other never overcomes bad acting nor does it add to good acting. It's irrelevant and frankly a distraction.

  6. Completely agree with Mr. Brantley's appraisal of the ten actresses. They are really amazing and the text of the play really lets then "strut their stuff". I felt that at times the play gets a little lost in its stylistic conceit, but that did not stop me from truly enjoying the antics and passions of the ten "men" and their fantastic voyage.

  7. I don't understand your review... it's not about gender politics but you can't imagine it nearly as entertaining with a cast of men. It begs the question why would you do the play with women playing men(and you can tell that they are women playing men) and it's not political? And why is it more entertaining? Because men aren't good enough actors? Or because you watched women playing men and got off on sexual types within the gay community? This review is horribly discriminatory and insulting. Baaaaad Brantley... Bad....

  8. Ah, the theater! Where non-gender specific individuals of the primarily female persuasion can provide unique insights and daring dramatic license to a historical event of indeterminate time and place! But why boats? Why not spaceships made of broccoli navigating an electrical current in a multi-verse space-time continuum? Just a thought, let's not get too conservative here.

  9. None of this suggests Powell's long line of contributions to 19th Century history, the founding Director of the Smithsonian, the catalyst for almost every exploration expedition in the last half of the 19th Century, collector-in-chief of the ethnography collection the Smithsonian holds, pioneer geologist and geographer, the list goes on. I recommend "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" by Wallace Stegner, a "pioneering" biography of Powell. There was the real "far west" and then the "far west" of movies and television. Stegner's book will suggest the large difference. Kudos to the trans-gender production. Do we really know that all the expedition members were men? We must always be careful of assumptions. TCM

  10. I just attended the packed third to last performance of "Men on Boats;" numerous extra chairs had to be added to accommodate the overflow audience. Having been on the Green and Colorado Rivers and having read Wallace Stegner's riveting book, I had more than passing interest in the play but didn't detect any indication in the text that the playwright intended to make a "political" statement. Anyone who has read about the extreme conditions Powell and his men had to surmount realizes that women may not have been able to carry out such an expedition for lack of physical power. To begin with, theater is not "real" and women playing male roles (and vice versa) is even less "real," in this case enhanced by the use of contemporary language. Several among the ten actors stood out for their vocal command and acting ability. The director did wonders on the tiny stage with evocative group movements illustrating the men's physical struggles. Also kudos to the sound and scenic designers. This is a terrific piece of theater; I understand the company is already exploring the possibility to bring it to a larger audience.

  11. As one in the hinterland, this makes me wish that plays were required to be recorded and available to the masses. I recall a play decades ago about a beauty pageant in which all the contestants were men in drag. Theater can be really interesting.
    About Powell--he lied a lot in his journals about cliff height, the fall of rapids, and other things. Because of Lake Mead's low level, Separation Rapid is exposed and runnable. I hope to go again and run that rapid.

  12. "You see, imagining life in another, distant time always requires a leap of faith."
    Of course it does, Ben. That's why we routinely see Ophelia played by a black man who's in transition.

  13. It seems like the author of this piece is fumbling through navigating gender and language, turning a not-so-complicated thing into a complicated one. Not to say it's not a complex topic, but the non-conventional use of gender in the piece shouldn't be so difficult to explain.