Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
The churn of deadly whitewater against rocks, the loss of provisions and the fear of not knowing exactly where they are on a huge river provide the dramatic backdrop for a story of survival, friendship and triumph in the Chenango River Theatre’s 2022 season opener, Men on Boats.
However, this is not your ordinary “man vs. nature” tale of derring-do. While Men on Boats is based on the Powell Geographical Expedition of 1869 on the Colorado River, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus specified that the cast be comprised of “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid and/or non-gender conforming.” Director Kiara Pipino provides a fresh take that maximizes the varied talents of its cast to highlight the strength and resilience of the characters. It is a physically demanding play, and these actors play tough throughout.
Adara Alston takes the helm as the one-armed expedition leader, John Wesley Powell. She is a realistic optimist in the face of the many difficulties the expedition will eventually face. “I don’t have answers; we’re on this expedition to find answers,” Powell answers his doubting second-in-command, William Dunn, portrayed by Heidi Weeks, a local talent who handles drama and comedy equally well.
The pair are emotional opposites who are still the best of friends. The amusing scenes in which they discuss the “three unwritten rules of naming geographic features” bring out their deep bond and provide a breather from the tense moments of inevitable disaster.
Yet Dunn constantly questions Powell’s decisions, e.g., portage versus shoot the rapids, and eventually decides “we will not be joining you” when the expedition reaches a critical point in the journey. “I would not wish this journey on any man, especially not my brother,” are Dunn’s parting words. All Powell can repeat to counter this pessimism is “We could be so close.”
Brotherhood, both actual and figurative, plays an important part in the play: Powell has his own brother, a cantankerous old Army vet known as “Old Shady” (Dori May Ganisin) along for the wild ride. Old Shady provides some comic relief with silly songs that celebrate small moments of triumph, such as catching fish for dinner (“Tin Fish”). Ganisin has the perfect dead-pan demeanor as the fraternal counterpoint to the outgoing Powell.
The other set of brothers, O.G. and Seneca Howland, are well-portrayed by Shelina Atambona and Isi Laborde, respectively. They also take on minor roles as Ute native people whom a decamping member of the expedition approaches for help. “We’re pretty stoked that the white people let us keep our land,” and “So your government sent you on this expedition without any contingency plan?” are just two examples of caustic modern commentary on how the West was actually won in the 19th century.
Each man on the original expedition had his own reason for taking part, and the actors who portray them do an excellent job of highlighting these varied personalities as Backhaus imagines them. Natalie DeBoer does a fine British gentleman-turned-adventurer, Bradley, who leaves the expedition after only a month, because the hardships aren’t what he signed on for. Newcomer Gillian Canavan fleshes out the expedition ingenue Frank Goodman with humor and sympathy. Lisa Naso, as John Colton Sumner, and Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, who creates Hawkins, round out the ensemble.
The play skillfully blends modern ideas as well as language — “Party boat!” the youngest expedition member, Hall (Eden Ohayon), cries out at each push-off to encourage the others) — with the more formal written record Powell left.
AmarA*jk created the spare, versatile scenic design, which uses white cloths to represent a whirlpool against the brilliantly hued rocks that contain the river. There is a feel of constant change in the landscape thanks to this imaginative staging, which the cast uses to great effect.
Men on Boats doesn’t just retell the dramatic story of a major exploration, as does Ted Tally’s Terra Nova, but gives it a fresh perspective on survival and what it means to work as a team by focusing on the individuals. “You rode those boats. You made history. This was your story,” Powell tells his expedition team in conclusion.
If YOU GO: Men on Boats, will be performed June 10-26 at the theater, 991 NY-12, Greene. Thursday-Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $27. The fastest way to purchase tickets is on the theater’s website, which also lists prices for season tickets. For phone order, there is a 24-hour reservation line (607-656-8499). It may take two to three days to process phone orders. All performances begin on time with no late seating.
COVID protocols: Masks are optional.