On the surface, there’s lots to like about “Men on Boats,” the new show at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
» It tells a historical story in an innovative way. It’s based on the journals of Major John Wesley Powell, who led a group of 10 white men on a government-sanctioned river expedition from Wyoming to a huge canyon in 1869. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus said the cast had to be made up of “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid and/or non-gender conforming” — and her script mixes 19th- and 21st-century language and notions — so it was clear that historical accuracy wasn’t her overarching objective.
» It features excellent direction and staging by guest director Amy Lane of Creighton University. A scene in which the explorers tackle waterfalls is amazing (yes, they do that in the small Howard Drew Theatre), and it’s not the only high point. The actors almost make you forget they’re not white males, though I suspect you’re not really supposed to. Teri Fender plays Powell as both commanding and naive, manly and giddy. Playhouse newcomer Allexys Johnson deftly plays William Dunn, who challenges Powell at every turn, and Daena Schweiger proves her comedy skills as Powell’s brother Old Shady, who’s musically inclined. The rest of the performers — Beth Thompson, Robyn Helwig, Sarah Klocke, Katt Walsh, Breanna Carodine, Esther Aruguete and Yone Edegbele — are wonderful as well (though I hope some Thursday preview night problems with lines didn’t plague the premiere on Friday.)
» The set, by Jim Othuse, was one of the best I’ve seen in the intimate Drew. Tall craggy bluffs really put you in the canyon, and the entire scenic design makes it surprisingly easy to imagine crews in several boats furiously paddling down the Green and Colorado Rivers. (The “boats” themselves help, as do John Gibilisco’s sound design, with crashing rapids and other outdoor sounds, and Amanda Fehlner’s authentic-looking costumes.)
If you sense a “but” here, you’re right, at least for me. I found a lot to consider below the surface as I tried (perhaps too hard) to figure out what I was supposed to take away from this show.
» A display of male and female traits and characteristics, brainstormed by kids at Girls Inc., was on the walls outside the theater along with pictures. To me, that signified that one point of the alternative cast was to illustrate female empowerment, the fact that we can do whatever we set out to do. I’m totally behind that concept, but it seems like having a non-male cast depict a bunch of fighting, hard-drinking and sometimes lewd explorers, no matter how funny it could be, wasn’t the best way to promote feminism. Women shouldn’t have to play men to prove their worth.
For me, plays such as “Silent Sky,” Lauren Gunderson’s luminous play about real-life astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, deliver the message more emphatically.
» I also think some audience members may chafe at the political undertones in Backhaus’ comments about the casting, which are printed in the program. At least one person wasn’t sure about the meaning of “cisgender” in the program notes. If you don’t do much research before you attend shows (or expect to be challenged on occasion), “Men on Boats” might be a surprise.
I admit it did challenge me, though I believe that’s one important purpose of the arts: to be forced to think about things you otherwise wouldn’t ponder and either embrace a new concept or solidify a belief.
In the end, I can wholeheartedly embrace what’s on the surface (a beautiful set, great performances, many funny moments, some truly breathtaking scenes that imaginatively depict peril.)
I’m still thinking about the playwright’s underlying meaning, and suspecting it’s probably not something I would embrace without reservations.
I can, however, leave you with what Lane said about the show in the program: “ ‘Men in Boats’ is a reimagining of a journey that gives new perspective to the stereotypical ideas of camaraderie, bravery and adventure. It celebrates the adventurous spirit in all of us, allowing us all a chance to be on the ride down the river, discovering new lands and making history.”
Perhaps the message is to go with the flow.