Liz Sklar, left front, plays John Wesley Powell, who leads a 19th century river expedition in American Conservatory Theater’s production of Jaclyn Backhaus’ subversive comedy “Men on Boats.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Wild, wonderful women take charge in ACT’s ‘Men on Boats’

The high points of history have always tended to feature men – which makes “Men on Boats” such an unexpected treat.

Jaclyn Backhaus’ rollicking, slyly subversive comedy, which opened over the weekend in an American Conservatory Theater production at the Strand Theater, takes a chapter from mid-19th century American history for a refreshingly contemporary spin.

The play tells the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led a crew of men on an 1869 expedition through the Green and Colorado rivers — territory better known today as the Grand Canyon — opening the American West for exploration and settlement.

It’s based on Powell’s own writings, with one significant difference: In Backhaus’ retelling, the men are played entirely by women.

Briskly directed by Tamilla Woodard, it’s a wild and wooly 90-minute ride, one that retraces Powell’s route even as it reconsiders
traditional notions of courage, masculinity and historical legacy.

There’s plenty of adventure in the story, established in the thrilling opening scene, where Powell and his men, in small wooden boats, start their journey in a ride down the rapids. Cries of “Oars up,” “hug the wall” and “rocks, rocks!” accompany the tightly choreographed movements reflecting the perils of raging waters.

In these and other episodes — in-fighting, boats capsizing, confronting snakes and catching fish in a burlap sack — the bravery of the men and the hardships of their journey are faithfully recreated.

But the genius of Backhaus’ script is its contemporary lens. The 10-woman cast speaks in 21st century vernacular, with phrases like “that’s so chill” peppering the dialogue. And, despite one character’s claim that they’re the first ever to see the wilderness, the playwright follows up with a wry encounter with two Native Americans clearly amused by the folly of the newcomers.

The cast is first-rate, beginning with Liz Sklar, who plays Powell as driven and slightly unhinged, with a long stare that suggests the fearless leader was always keeping one eye on his legacy.

Sarita Ocón shines in a forthright performance as the navigator Dunn. Annemaria Rajala’s haunted Old Shady gives voice to a pair of mournful songs. Amy Lizardo radiates goodwill as the cook, Hawkins; Lisa Hori-Garcia and Lauren Spencer create indelible impressions as brothers Seneca and O.G. Howland. Arwen Anderson, Rosie Hallett, Libby King and Katherine Romans make stalwart contributions.

Woodard’s production imaginatively captures the wilds of the Old West on the Strand stage, with Nina Ball’s set framed by tall maps evoking the canyon walls; lighting (by Robert Hand) and sound (by Kate Marvin) add dimension. If, like most of us, the thought of running a river makes you slightly queasy, “Men on Boats” offers the next best thing — vicarious thrills with a new-found view of the past.

REVIEW
Men on Boats
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes Dec. 16
Tickets: $30 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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