THE GRAND CANYON AND COLORADO RIVER CHALLENGE 10 MEN TO SURVIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM
The Colorado River is running with pride this winter at the OPEN STAGE THEATRE. The new play by Jaclyn Backhaus MEN ON BOATS floods the Lincoln Center through February 15th. This play is directed by Denisee Burson Freestone with a local cast of ten Open Stage Theatre vets. Freestone says she was especially pleased to keep the cast of women all local favorites. “Welcome to Men on Boats, where there are no men, or boats”..
The playwright Backhaus says MEN ON BOATS is perfect for local Colorado audiences “Colorado 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. Fort Collins CO is the perfect city for this play.”
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. Open Stage’s production of Backhaus’ work you won’t fail to notice that 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 a real life chapter from U.S. History. The adventure of discovering the dangers of the river and the Grand Canyon are hardly male only domains. Freestone direction is a patriotic production that gives her actors a real workout, you’ll soon forget the characters the women are playing historic characters who were men.
At the head of this story is a one-armed ex-soldier named John Wesley Powell. His dangerous 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. This play makes it easy to picture the sheer difficulty faced by rafting the river with just four small boats. John Wesley Powell was born on March 24th 1834 he 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 to move West.
Shannon Nicole Light is perfectly in tune with the adventurous and daring attitude as the headstrong crew member William Dunn, while Alex Forbes is reserved but powerful presence as the young important mapmaker, Hall. Molly McGuire 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. Mcguire is adept in the play’s many high energy movement sequences as the explorers brave the rapids and cataracts in the canyons. Freestone kept the cast moving and successfully recreated the hours and days the team had to carry their boats above their heads. McGuire brings a winning, bright mood to the chipper team member, Bradley. Maya Jaraim and Kaya Rudolp, whose main characters are the no-nonsense boat mates. Jaraim and Rudolph do a great job co-playing as an Indian settler and his wife as they meet the surprised explorers at one point in the story.
The rousing Briana Sprecher-Kinneer is a compelling figure as Powell’s mysterious brother, nicknamed Old Shady. A local favorite Heather Johnson who is a vet in local theater is right in her element as the quiet cook, Hawkins. She steals the 90 min play when she slams to death a rattlesnake with her loving coffee pot which was likely the most comedic and memorable scene. The energized Kate Austin-Gröen commands the helm as the one arm John Wesley Powell, and is the perfect level-headed commander. Austin-Gröen 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 Magnolia stage, but sound designer Victoria Villalobos does bring the great Colorado River to life with compelling sound effects. The minimal set is used creatively throughout the play and the talented projectionist Grant Putney creates a realistic atmosphere that was movable on the earth-toned map panels that capture the correct atmosphere around the explorers. Toni Alexander’s light design complements the rapid river and dangers of the Grand Canyon with different tones of light focused on different areas throughout the set. Costume designer Rebecca Spafford brings an impressive look to the cast, with eye-catching yet accurate outfits that completes the gritty and ground soaked look the men had in the original story.
Powell is famous for his thought provoking quotes that helped further the plot, “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.” She talks about the Grand Canyon, “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 clever 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. The story is performed realistically with some fresh comedic timing by these polished actresses. The madness and decadents of MEN ON BOATS might be a bit slow at times, but the patriotic production really floats with an incredibly engaging cast and production team. This piece overall truly was a “theatrical journey filled with danger, humor and pathos, we also explore the uncharted waters of a renewed freedom and the undiscovered horizons of a newfound equality.” says director Freestone.
Next up at Open Stage is CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne. It opens February 28th and later this season is RUMORS by Neil Simon opens March 28th. But in the meantime, take your own paddle and boat to the Lincoln Center Theatre for this wild hilarious ride down the rapids of the Grand Canyon with the women of MEN ON BOATS.
OPEN STAGE Theatre Presents
MEN ON BOATS
By Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Denise Burson Freestone
Only through February 15, 2020
At The Lincoln Center Magnolia Theatre
417 West Magnolia Street
90 minutes no intermission