Review: GTAs “Men on Boats” is a new take on the old west

by Jody Key — Managing Editor

Early records of America tell how “the West was won” (or lost, depending on your point of view). To whom do we attribute the “founding” of certain areas? Our history books might have a blurb about Union Civil War hero, geologist, and explorer John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition to explore the Grand Canyon river basin. Powell assembled a group of 9 rough and rugged men who traveled on the first government-sanctioned geological survey along the Green and Colorado rivers in four boats from May to August, battling the brutal desert summer heat, treacherous rapids, and horrendous rattlesnakes along the way.

Fast forward to 2019 and gender bend the story, and you have Men On Boats, which opened Friday, February 15th at the Ed Cabell Theater as part of Gainesville Theatre Alliance’s February Festival. While the show is entitled Men on Boats about the Men that embarked on this dangerous trip, there is nary a man in the show, with the exception of the two musicians. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’s choice of casting all women into what would otherwise be traditional male roles turns the show upside-down like a capsized vessel resulting in a new view of the old West.

Once again, GTA assembles a cast and crew that work tireless hours to bring audiences a visual and auditory feast. This labor of love by director and GTA faculty member Elisa Carlson showcases the immense talents of GTA’s leading ladies. Larry Cook’s scenic design paired with Evan Freeman’s lighting design turns a static set into rivers, river banks, and finally a breathtaking immersive Grand Canyon. Cole Spivia’s costume design paired with props and puppets by Rooster Sultan evokes the authenticity of the West in 1869. As a Colorado native having lived in the Southwest for half my life, I felt both nostalgic and homesick watching this show, missing the beauty of the Southwest. Other patrons I spoke to after the show recalled their trips to the area fondly as well.

The show alternated from thrilling scenes on the river to exposition on the banks where we get to know the personality of each character. Each scene flows easily together with expert blocking and movement by coach Eliana Marianes. The characters dance along the rapids, halted by rocks, tossed by rapids, and careening over waterfalls. Some of the most compelling scenes take place underwater as characters are thrown overboard. All of the excitement makes for characters who, driven by ego, learn to depend on one another as much as some begin to lose trust in each other.

Heading up this ensemble are Darian Payne as John Wesley Powell and Daniela Santiago as Powell’s right-hand-person William Dunn. Both Powell and Dunn fought together in the Civil War (which they don’t like to talk about). Dunn’s ambition and need to name a landmark after himself act as a foil to what he feels is Powell’s questionable leadership. Darian, in a GTA mainstage debut, dominates the stage as the one-armed captain of this expedition with a cool head and a commanding spirit. Daniela’s performance is powerful and larger than life as well.

Between the action are scenes of comic relief with the antics of the crew enjoying whiskey and cowering from rattlesnakes, breaking the tension of riveting river scenes. Each performance adds its own layer to the sediment of this grand production. Emily Barnett as Sumner is tough and no-nonsense yet hilariously afraid of snakes. Gracie Dial as the young and talkative Bradley thinks fast in removing trousers to save the life of Powell. Nicole Hart as Mr. Asa congratulatorily explains the obscure future legacy the crew members will leave. Alaina Holeman as O.G. Howland delivers humorous lines while occasionally sneaking off to smoke the groups’ tobacco rations. Shea Jones as Englishman Frank Goodman adds hilarious British flair to the expedition. Celine Mansour as Hawkins, the crew’s cook, serves up some of the best lines in the show. Zafyre Sexton’s Old Shady is brilliant and lends a beautiful singing voice to several of the camp scenes. Bennet Welch as the expedition’s cartographer, Hall, keeps the crew on course. Lauren Wilson as Seneca Howland provides a stage presence that solidifies the show. Each lady contributes to the whole of this compelling production.

In addition to this adventurous crew of explorers, perhaps the most hilarious characters are those of Estef Martin as The Bishop and Maria Vizcarra as Tsuwait, the Native Americans encountered by Powell and Goodman. This duo delivers lines in salty and sarcastic 21st-century vernacular. Their laissez-faire, been-there-done-that attitude toward the American explorers provide indigenously inherent social commentary.

The only men in sight in this performance provide a beautiful contribution to the evening’s excursion. Kyle Cantrell’s composition and sound design present a desert bouquet of delightful music to move the story along. Kyle’s guitar playing along with Shanden Vance’s violin and several other instruments capture the essence of 19th-century western music. Audiences are in for a treat as the duo embarks upon a rendition of Dueling Banjos to lead off act II.

On the whole, GTA does a fabulous job of taking historical subject matter and bringing it to life on stage in a novel way. Men On Boats runs from February 15th to 23rd. Tickets can be purchased at https://blog.ung.edu/gta/

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