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The Colorado River is running with pride at the STRAND STAGE this fall as the new play by Jaclyn Backhaus MEN ON BOATS floods the Market Street stage through Dec 16th. Directed by Tamilla Woodard with a local cast of ten American Conservatory Theatre vets. Pam MacKinnon Artistic Director of ACT is pleased she was able to keep the cast of women all local favorites; “Men on Boats reminds me that the word “play” is a verb to be activated, wrested with and enjoyed. There are no men, there are no boats, but there they are in our imagination, vivid and strong. It is a play that piques my huge respect for the author's craft and platform for performance. I am thrilled to produce it at ACT with an all local cast of women, directed by the exciting star Tamilla Woodard.” The playwright Backhaus says MEN IN BOATS is perfect for Bay Area audiences “The Bay is still a frontier, (including) the political and social justice environments. It’s a place of adventure a place where people find unknown territory and a place where movements start. (SF) is the perfect city for this play.”

Ten explorers, four wooden boats, and a guest to map the Grand Canyon. MEN ON BOATS is the true history of the 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River. “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore” says professor John Wesley Powell. ACT’s production of Backhaus’ work you won’t fail to notice there are no actual men in “MEN ON BOATS” and you won’t miss their presence. The story pays no attention to character development, it makes its own statement simply retelling of a real life chapter from U.S.history. The adventure of discovering the dangers of the river and Grand Canyon are hardly male only domains. Directed by Tamilla Woodard in a delightful production that gives her actors a real workout, you’ll soon forget the characters the women are playing were originally men.

MEN ON BOATS tells the story of the one-armed ex-soldier John Wesley Powell’s audacious 1869 expedition to explore the lower reaches of the Colorado River via the gorges of the Grand Canyon. Some of the most dangerous threatening river rapids in the United states lie in the heart of the Grand Canyon. Imagine rafting the river with just four small boats. John Wesley Powell was born on March 24th 1834. Powell developed an interest in geology. In the mid 1800’s the Colorado River was one of the last unexplored areas in the United States; no one had ever mapped the full length of the Colorado River which included the Grand Canyon. It started with ten experienced men and four specially made wooden boats;10 months of supplies were packed for the journey. Powell’s discoveries filled in the empty spaces of the American Dream move to the West.

Sarita Ocon is ideally in tune with the full speed vibe as the headstrong crew member William Dunn, while Rosie Hallett is reserved but powerful presence as the young all important mapmaker, Hall. Libby King is strong and upbeat as the icon, John Colton Sumner, who made a snow death trek to the Rocky Mountains just to say he did it. King is adept in the plays many high energy movement sequences as the explorers brave the rapids and cataracts in the canyons. Movement coach Danyon Davis kept the cast moving and recreated the hours and days the team had to carry their boats above their heads. Katherine Romans brings a winning, bright mood to the chipper team member, Bradley. The full throttle Lisa Hori-Garcia and Lauren Spencer, whose main characters are the no-nonsense boat mates Seneca Howland and OG, have the funniest moments in the roles as two ultra-cool leaders of a local tribe who encounter the surprised explorers.

The rousing Annemaria Rajala is a compelling figure as Powell’s mysterious brother, nicknamed Old Shady. Local favorite Amy Lizado is right in her element as the boisterous cook, Hawkins, and steals the 90 min play when she slams to death a rattlesnake with her loving coffee pot. The clever Arwen Anderson makes an appealing comic take as the proper and befuddled English adventurer, Frank Goodman. Voice Coach Lisa Anne Porter kept the whole cast on cue and authentic. The energized Liz Sklar commands the helm as the one arm John Wesley Powell, and is the perfect self-grandeur character. Porter becomes the anthem of the subplot of American discovery along side the entire cast of bold and funny players.

There’s no river roaring across the Strand stage, but sound designer Kate Marvin does bring the great Colorado River to life with compelling sound effects. Award winning set designer Nina Ball created movable, earth-toned map panels that capture a feel of sheer miles of river and canyon the team traveled. Robert Hand’s light design complements the rapid river and dangers of the Grand Canyon with a blue highlight glow. Woodward not only directs an impressively diverse cast looking rough and gritty in Christine Crooks detailed and eye-catching costumes.

Powell is famous for his over the top quotes “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.” The best one “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” Backhaus hits back as she changes the wit of Powell to more current pros “We have boats, we have somebody who makes us coffee. We have a map-maker. This is cushy frontiering.” As the women say these man bro lines; “Our eyes will be old someday, and new eyes will not see the things we see with such a sheen.” He goes on: “This whole country, built on the idea of newness. Eventually it all gets old.”

The explorers traveled for almost four months finding their way out at Separation Canyon. There was no hero’s welcome but US History called this one of the most dangerous Map quests to date. Performed by these polished actors of “fluid” race and gender but it isn’t discussed in the Backhaus subtext. Powell, like the keen Narcissus he was, winds up having mixed success with the River yet they did rule the era. The madness and decadents of MEN IN BOATS might be over the top at times, this play really floats with a fun tight cast and production team. ACT opens their annual classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL Dec 6th through 29th on their Geary Street Stage. But in the meantime paddle your own boat to the STRAND Theatre for this wild hilarious ride down the rapids of the Grand Canyon with the women of MEN ON BOATS.

American Conservatory Theatre Presents

Men on Boats

By Jaclyn Backhaus

Directed by Tamilla Woodard

Only through December 16th

American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater

1127 Market Street.

Tickets at Geary Theatre Box Office

Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228

online at

90 minutes no intermission

Photos by Kevin Berne

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