One Program Note Is Key to Inventive ‘Men on Boats’

A lot of hell and high water (mostly the latter) bedevils John Wesley Powell (Kristianne Kurner, left foreground) and his cook Hawkins (Samantha Ginn, right foreground) during their Grand Canyon expedition. Photo by Daren Scott.

When word surfaced that Carlsbad’s New Village Arts would stage its current Men on Boats with a prescribed female cast, patrons couldn’t have been blamed for sensing a political message behind the move, especially in this muzzy Harvey Weinstein era. The Jacklyn Backhaus piece, after all, recasts soldier John Wesley Powell’s punishing 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers, which ran through the heart of Utah and Arizona and some of the country’s last uncharted lands.

Women are just as capable as men, the idea seems to say, even as the potential dangers cause four of the ten-member party to quit in midstride.

As it happens, the mien here is far more than an illustration of female prowess. It’s also a guide to a pretty good show, whose characters paint an entirely different tone within one of national history’s iconic discoveries. Swagger begets determination, ritual yields to caprice and camaraderie precedes freedom of choice in this unlikely setting — the unexpected flavor engages and disarms amid a highly inventive approach, fueling endless possibilities for similar enterprise.

Mount Morris, N.Y. native Powell, an ardent Union supporter and fighter during the Civil War, spent his postwar years exploring America’s burgeoning West. His parties recalled his confidence and fairness in leadership despite a constant distraction (he’d lost an arm in battle and was in nonstop pain); meanwhile, even as his men were historically obscure, his insatiable passion for the unknown elevated his Colorado River trek to its iconic stature, not unlike Sir Richard Burton’s hard-fought discovery of the Nile River’s source or Neil Armstrong’s aboriginal “one small step” onto a celestial body.

The women’s flights of fancy echo those of any capable male troupe . . .

Powell died at Brooklin, Maine in 1902 at age 68, his legacy strewn with appointments to the U.S. Geological Survey and with clutches of Grand Canyon landmarks named after members of his party. If Backhaus’ portrayal sought to recall the massiveness of his life, this mount would have been horribly lost in the minutiae (and admittedly, there are a few such lapses amid bloated dialogue) — but she’s created a good “what-if” scenario behind director Melissa Coleman-Reed’s cast.

The women’s flights of fancy echo those of any capable male troupe without conceding the latter’s predictably aggressive bent. Fine line, maybe, but Coleman-Reed walks it very well indeed.

New Village artistic director Kristianne Kurner, who plays the tub-thumping Powell, has (perhaps unwittingly) put the best face of all on this piece, and it rests quietly in a simple program note. Male playwrights, it so happens, outnumber their opposite numbers by something like 4.26 billion to 1 — but even as this topic persists in today’s theater circles, Kurner shrewdly keeps her enthusiasm to herself.

“[Adventurous] roles,” she wrote, “simply have not been written for women.” No umbrage, no lamentation, no politics — just an unadorned truth that says mining of material far exceeds matters of gender.

John Wesley Powell (right) takes in the lay of the Grand Canyon land with a Native American guide. Public domain image.

Kurner’s Powell commands respect because he’s a fair, resolute leader — his crowd has its rambunctious side (like that of Hawkins the cook, played by Samantha Ginn, who gives her usual 438 percent), and it’s not immune to severe difference of opinion (Nancy Ross’ Dunn is fixed on himself and wants to christen every mountain on earth in his name). But everybody is wonderfully disparate, re-enacting turtle turns on a dime and otherwise flirting with parody lest the show’s bearing becomes indefinable.

Christopher Scott Murillo’s set, Elisa Benzoni’s costumes, Melanie Chen Cole’s sound and Sarah Schwartz’s lights capitalize on the “what-if” framework, rendering effects versus committing their elements to stone.

Can you imagine an all-female Marat-Sade or The Exonerated or Jim Bridger, Mountain Man or The Face of Emmett Till or (God forbid) anything by Neil Simon? I sure can, although I must acknowledge that before this show, the concept never occurred to me in earnest. I’d hate the Simon by default, but I’d cheerfully embrace the potential pulse of the attempt at the others — watching Men on Boats persuades me that I’d be in intriguing actorial company. Fun piece.

This review is based on the matinee performance of April 1. Men on Boats runs through April 22 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $28-$39. 760-433-3245,

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