Men on Boats, now playing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, has the unusual distinction of providing neither of the things promised in the title, and being all the better for the omission. With no men and no boats, this all-female cast tells the true story of an 1869 exploration down the Colorado River in a way that is funny, unique and thought provoking.
Men on Boats, follows the one-armed Civil War Veteran, Major John Wesley Powell and the nine adventurers under his command as they set out to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. The ten actors work together seamlessly to create an ensemble that is cohesive and lyrical when on the river but disparate and mismatched when on dry land.
Although historically an all-male expedition, on stage, each role is played by a woman. On the surface, this serves to call attention to historical and modern gender inequality. But it also adds and unexpected layer of depth to the piece. By calling attention to the ways in which the show is not historically accurate, it forces you to think critically about the actions and decisions of these historic figures rather than get caught up in the story.
Similarly, the show utilizes modern language and sensibilities not only to make the story more accessible but also to call attention to where the characters are arrogant, racist or flat-out wrong. The show’s self-awareness results in many comedic moments and scenes. The most hilarious example of which is when a group of Native Americans describe not being kicked off their homelands by the U.S. Government as “chill.”
While these elements make Men on Boats very effective in some ways, it also creates the show’s biggest weakness. Despite the show’s many laugh-out-loud moments and well-written scenes, the plot isn’t especially captivating. The show is so self-aware and pithy that it can jolt you out of the story. It’s enjoyable and fun, but it’s not going to allow you to get lost in a story and forget your own troubles for an hour and a half.
That stated, the cast is wonderful. Each actress makes her character into a unique and memorable part of the whole. Furthermore, every actress is given a chance to shine in the well-rounded script. Liz Sklar does a wonderful job as expedition leader Major John Wesley Powell as does Sarita Ocón as want-to-be leader William Dunn. In my opinion, however, Annemaria Rajala gave the standout performance as Major Powell’s brother, Old Shady. The largely silent role is made hilarious by Rajala through reactions to other characters’ lines and a wonderful scene where she sings to a fish. Despite the character’s comedic role, however, Rajala breathes a lot of humanity into Old Shady, making it clear without words how much he cares for his brother and the other members of the expedition.
Men on Boats is a unique and thought-provoking show that makes plenty of room for laugh-out-loud comedy. The cast members are great at breathing modern life into historical figures. Although it is not as engrossing as it could be, the show is charming and a genuinely good time.
Men on Boats runs now through December 16, 2018 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. The show runs about 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets range from $15 - $110.
Photos Courtesy of Kevin Berne