Telluride Theatre: “Men On Boats,” A Gender-bending, Off-the-canyon-wall Dramedy!

Telluride Theatre celebrates the spirit of the Grand Canyon with its latest production “Men on Boats.” The show was written by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus and is now up at The Bob Black Box at the Michael D. Palm Theatre, March 2-5 and March 9-12, 2023, 7 p.m. nightly.

Seating is limited each night. Tickets are $30 general admission for adults; $20 for children ages 13-18 – the show is appropriate for kids ages 13 and up – and are on sale now at telluridetheatre.org.

To become a member of Telluride Theatre, go here.

Go here for more about the history of Telluride Theatre.

And please scroll down for our review of the show.

Ten explorers. Four boats. One Grand Canyon. Telluride Theatre’s rollicking adaptation of “Men On Boats” retells the true(ish) story of the “discovery” of the Grand Canyon.

Without a single man in sight.

The air quotes around “discovery” are a tip of the hat to the fact that Native Americans arrived in the Grand Canyons region around 200 B.C. Anasazi then lived within the boundaries of the Four Corners before migrating towards the gigantic, water-filled hole.

Jess sayin…

Manifest Destiny is the 19th-century philosophy that the westward expansion which ultimately created America the Beautiful was divinely ordained (and therefore inevitable) – and a surrogate for empire-building at expense of indigenous cultures and later, intrepid Mormon farmers too. Throughout the production there are numerous references to the terrible treatment given to Native Americans by the U.S. government and the ridiculous notion of “exploring” lands that had been inhabited for centuries.

Real facts aside, Telluride Theatre’s gender-bending slice of Manifest Destiny by the highly acclaimed playwright Jaclyn Backhaus is history like you have never seen it before – though the playwright based her work on Powell’s actual travel logs. Everything, everywhere all at once gets upended – including the boats. And, since Backhaus stipulated the expedition’s 10 white males be played by anything but, the macho bros are performed by women of assorted races, cultures, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Under the direction of Sasha Cucciniello, (also the artistic director of Telluride Theatre) that talented cast (supported by a very deft crew) turned “Men in Boats” into an over-the-top, 90-minutes of a death-defying joy ride.

Synopsis:

In 1869, ten explorers set off to chart the Green and Colorado Rivers under the guidance of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War Veteran and personal friend of President Grant. The government-sanctioned journey, which included the first traversal of the Grand Canyon by non-natives, followed in the footsteps of deserters, solo adventurers, and countless indigenous people who previously braved the wild rapids leading through Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – including the most dangerous waterway of them all, the Grand Canyon.

Cucciniello’s decidedly innovative theatrical riff on true grit and colonialism features an ensemble who regularly strike exaggerated macho poses and spout rough talk, while standing in for Powell’s men. They stomp their feet and shout as they shoot the wild rapids and generally, with a wink, mock the strictly white male version of U.S. pioneer history. In response we laugh at their “macho” narcissism, while the natives they encounter en route – who have been there, done that— set them straight about “owning” giant chunks of Mother Nature.

To a person, the cast was resilient and confident. Each character built a personality that created a very humorous and cohesive vibe, while forging a convincing fraternal bond among their “brotherhood,” so when dissension cleaved their ranks it felt all the more wrenching.

Cast and crew, more:

Cucciniello made sure core roles would be distinguished one from the other through finely honed character traits. Together the performance of the ensemble was big, bold, brash and boisterous.

As Powell, the always fearless actor Sue Knectel took the lead in modeling testosterone-fueled ambition. She is – predictably – a compelling and powerful leader, who puffs up her character with reckless bravado and an unwavering sense of his own infallibility. Knechtel handled the nuances and varying emotion required for the role expertly, switching from over-confident and over-excited to serious and a bit dangerous. Nothing – not lost boats, nor churning waters, nor imminent starvation – could persuade Powell/Knechtel to abandon his course – and the glory that surely awaited him.

“We won’t know it’s the right choice until we make it,” exclaimed Powell at one point in the adventure. The line became the leitmotif of the production.

Julia Caulfield is convincing as the self-assured, pragmatic William Dunn, the hunter/trapper who fatally defects on the verge of victory. As the foil to Powell’s unchecked optimism, Caulfield establishes the imminent and dangerous stakes throughout her performance. That doubting and second-guessing layed the groundwork for the departures of several characters, while reinforcing the idea that the party’s ultimate success was truly something of a miracle.

As Powell’s older brother, the shell-shocked Old Shady, Suzanne Cheavens gave us a macabre, closed-lipped character, still struggling in the aftermath of the Civil War. Her Shady, who also sang and mugged a lot, was consistent in his support of Powell’s decisions and drive in the mission. As she has in past shows, in certain memorable scenes Cheavens steals the limelight.

Also in the excellent cast is Ramie Holmquist as John Colton Sumner, the sane, if very eccentric, voice in the crowd. (The character is a hunter who revels in killing bears, dreams of sleeping in trees and hates snakes). Holmquist plays her role as a closed-off, deadpan personality to wonderful effect.

As O.G. Howland, Ursula Rose Ostrander was one of the deepest wells of humor in the production, umm, braiding her lines with barbs that always hit their mark.

Played by Vanessa Ramirez, O.G.’s brother Seneca quietly reinforced his brother’s sarcastic bent, while expertly preventing the narrative from falling into a ravine.

Together the duo – which also appears later in the show as early settlers – neatly depicted “don’t have time for this shit” realness.

As the wealthy Brit Frank Goodman, Meghan Knowles played the ill-at-ease, but frequent adventurer amid the otherwise rough-and-tumble crew. Her delivery, facial expressions and voice, a consistent comic delight. After the first stage of their grueling journey, Goodman politely departed the company having had quite enough of Powell’s reckless “heroism” and gambling with everyone’s life.

Stanya Gorraiz is Hawkins, the energetic Quartermaster who does everything in his power to make a meal out of an apple and a little flour. For comic relief, when the resting crew encounters a rattlesnake, Hawkins beats the snake to death – with a coffee pot. Loyal, but bumbling, Gorraiz’ slapstick humor was irresistible.

Liz Lowry’s map-maker, Andrew Hall, was a go-for-broke enthusiast who never wavered from her demanding job. As a stand-in for the original Hall, Lowry could not have done better.

The keen, green teen in the mix was a joy to watch on stage. The uninhibited, all-in actor, newbie Itzel Hernandez, played Bradley, who had just lost his mother on his very first expedition. At one point in the show, Hernandez removed her pants, handing them as a lifeline to a terrified Powell, who at the time is hanging from a cliff. (Serious yet hilarious, but it all ended well.) We hope to see more of her.

The coda of “Men in Boats’ featured a crusty Nevada settler named Asa, played by a confident Karen Guglielmone. Her monologue (and mission) was to point out the fact that although Powell would live on in fame, most of his intrepid crew would go down in infamy. (And in few bars.) A poignant reminder that in the Wild Wild West sheer heroism was not always its own reward.

“Men on Boats” was able to transport the audience back in time thanks in no small part to Telluride Theatre’s producing director Melissa Trn. Her minimal set and simple rough-and-tumble costume designs worked magically. Using wooden boxes as boats and step ladders for mountains and ravines, Trn established pride of place. Other brilliant technical elements  included Kelli Fox’s lighting design. One fine example was her use of blue light to represent waves as they washed over the cast navigating whitewater rapids and precipitous waterfalls. The original music by Travis Young, was a delight and felt very familiar (especially if you are a Bluegrass regular), His sounds set the tone of quickly changing scenes beautifully. As right hands to Cucciniello, stage managers Carl McMahon and Samuel Young helped to keep the non-stop action on point and moving apace.

In conclusion:

In short, Sasha Cucciniello’s adaptation of “Men on Boats” hands us a yummy cake and lets us eat it too. The show is for sure funny, but it also treats the endless danger the crew faced seriously. The snow is (more or less) historical, but still managed to serve up contemporary insights into past travesties (like Manifest Destiny). It depicted men, but in so doing, featured women as the adventurers. And those women exposed Powell’s and his men’s cluelessness – while also delivering a thoroughly engaging evening.

Great job all.

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