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Theatre Review



Justice Theater Project's Men on Boats Has No Men and No Boats, but Intriguing Slant on Male-Dominated History


Event  Information

Raleigh -- ( Fri., Feb. 8, 2019 - Sun., Feb. 24, 2019 )

Justice Theater Project: Men on Boats
Performed by Justice Theater Project cast; Jules Odendahl-James, director
$ -- Umstead Park United Church of Christ , (919) 264-7089, thejusticetheaterproject@gmail.com , http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org

February 8, 2019 - Raleigh, NC:


Jaclyn Backhaus' 2016 Men on Boats is, at its core, the true story of John Wesley Powell's 1869 geologic expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Grand Canyon. But, by being told through the contemporary construct of having no men in the cast and the theatrical conceit of having no actual boats on stage, the play filters both history and theatre through a kaleidoscopic lens. The Justice Theater Project's cleverly staged, visually arresting production ranks as one of its best in terms of consistency and professionalism.

Powell had been an intrepid geological explorer from his early 20s and, despite losing his right arm in the Civil War, he continued to explore the American West. In 1869, he and nine other men set out from Wyoming on the Green River in four wooden boats on what was to become a frustrating, often perilous three-month journey. Powell published his journal about the trip, writing about being the "first" to discover and name various geographical sites, although he acknowledged that some earlier white men had passed through the areas and that Native Americans had also known the landscape.

The idea that white men in privileged positions were the ones who got to write official history is what Backhaus set out to explore with a 21st century viewpoint. She also wanted female-identifying actors to have the chance to play characters requiring physical and emotional responses normally unavailable in female roles. In addition, the playwright sought to create the visceral thrills of daring adventure in a uniquely theatrical fashion.

Backhaus attempts much in her play, and if it all doesn't register equally or in as much depth as it might, it deserves a lot of credit for being just what it is. The piece can be appreciated on a number of levels, satisfying interest in U.S. history, feminist theory, theatrical inventiveness, and engaging storytelling.

Director Jules Odendahl-James, long established as a visionary artist in the Triangle, gets confident performances from a cast with wide-ranging experience and background, drawing a distinctive characterization from each actor. She hasn’t pushed them to be stereotypical male in physical or vocal mannerisms, instead offering fascinating personalities neither male nor female, yet together.

Odendahl-James is aided mightily by choreographer Denise Cerniglia, who makes the depictions of the explorers' negotiations of rapids, rocks, whirlpools, and waterfall vividly realistic. The actors line up as if in separate boats, using their bodies to react to the turns and spins and intense shouts of navigation and warning to convey the terrors of making their way into the unknown. Although some productions suggest the boats with ropes, miniature bow fronts, or tubular outlines, here the staging is all the more impressive because the audience "sees" the boats without any material indications. The times when crew members go overboard are particularly gripping, the actors believably indicating flailing and struggling.

Opening night found the actors firm in their staging, timing, and characterizations. Faye Goodwin's Powell emphasized his upbeat optimism and unshakeable conviction of success, which came in direct contrast to Mara Thomas' Dunn, a hunter-trapper who sees only the dangers and reasons for failure. The pair's confrontations supplied much of the personal drama in the piece.

Jessica Flemming gave a memorable performance as Powell's brother, Old Shady, whose stoic, steady support grounded the often-fractured atmosphere among the discontented crew. Sarah Koop supplied a jolly presence for Goodman, an Englishman who joined the project for a bit of adventure but soon found it required more grit than he realized. Page Purgar made Hawkins, the expedition's cook, a funny, no-nonsense workhorse, while Marleigh Purgar McDonald filled young Bradley with naïve excitement and readiness.

Candace Hescock's quiet, pragmatic Hall, Tori Grace Nichols' glum but cooperative Sumner, Johanna Burwell's laconic mapmaker (and provisions thief) O.G., and Ariel Griffin Smith's agreeable Seneca rounded out a very likeable cast.

The production boasts fine technical elements, from Juan Isler's sound design of rushing water and Bart Matthews' atmospheric original music to Emily Johns' character-enhancing costuming (particularly the individualized hats) and Jenni Mann Becker's beautiful lighting, especially the striking reds for canyon walls and rich blues for dawn and nightfall.

Sonya Drum turned in another creative set design with a concept that the production was taking place in the backstage area of a museum's diorama section, where one depicting Powell's expedition is being constructed. The audience sees the plywood backs of the display's setting of mountains and canyons, along with prop tables on either side of the set.

According to a recent interview, Odendahl-James' concept was that history is always being constructed and that the female museum staff decides to act out history from their own perspective. The idea had possibilities, but was curiously not referenced specifically, except at the beginning when the actress playing Powell appeared with a clipboard as though checking off all the diorama elements. After that, the cast simply appeared in costume and proceeded to play the script without further indication they were at the museum, making the setting confusing without any real context.

Further quibbles include the overuse of the ambient sounds of rushing water and campfire crackling, especially at a volume that competed with the more soft-spoken cast members. The performance space at Umstead Park United Church of Christ does not have ideal acoustics, which made some of Odendahl-James' staging decisions questionable by positioning actors facing upstage to deliver important dialogue.

Despite these minor flaws, the production is a fresh, intriguing take on traditional storytelling and casting, with a script that appropriately confirms the Justice Theater Project's mission of creating community dialogue and giving voice to social concerns.

Men on Boats continues through Sunday, February 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.