ACT's 'Men On Boats' Is An Illusion Of True Engagement

There are a few ways of looking at ACT’s production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, her take on John Wesley Powell’s somewhat ill-fated attempt to map the Grand Canyon in what was at the time, 1869, a dangerous and treacherous journey down the Colorado river.

The first is as a quasi-revisionist history. The play points out on numerous occasions that though Powell’s expedition is “the first sanctioned by the government” that “Plenty of Natives have runs these rivers before,” and that “plenty of Americans too, but most of them were deserters on the lamb … so no one counts them.”

There’s a vein of humor in the play that relies on the implicit irony of the past. We’re aware of history in ways that the characters could never possibly understand and so their limitations are a source of light humor and social critique. What that misses is the beauty and tension of actually feeling someone live in the moment, to experience the force of the world without the benefit of hindsight. This is both an intellectual and artistic defect with the thinking behind Backhaus’s play and a defect no serious theatergoer should disregard.

This is not to say that irony can’t be a potent dramatic weapon, but that in Men on Boats there’s an air of condescension towards Powell and his crew. In purely dramatic terms, Backhaus needs the myth of adventurous men to maintain interest, and in particular adventurous American men fighting their way through a vast and somewhat unknown territory.

Yet over and over again, you can feel that she doesn’t trust the story in front of her. Of course, there’s no rule that says that she must or that there’s something inherently wrong about wavering between a celebration of American manifest destiny and its critique. What’s damning is that she can’t think through that split, find a way to give such contrary impulses intellectual and theatrical life.

I’ve been struck in recent years how unsure American playwrights are of their audiences and how to communicate with them. It’s as if there are no rules or a sense of agreement about how to tell a tale. That’s led to a great deal of experimentation around the edges of playwriting, but few moments of revolutionary insight. So another way of looking at Men on Boats is to ask what this play is fighting against or for.

From that vantage point, Backhaus follows the lead of the musical Hamilton by honing in on the cast and insisting that it “should be made up entirely of people who are not … cisgender white males.” As a political and social gesture, it would be hard to deny how potent an issue casting is. It touches on all aspects of the theater and illuminates both how we represent the world and whom we allow to be front and center in that representation.

And her casting demands certainly solve a tonal problem for the play. The actresses can fully embody the men of Powell’s expedition while simultaneously creating a sense of critical distance. They are clearly not what they play and because of that the play is always commenting and addressing the presentation before us. In many ways, the production of the play is much more the subject of the play than the historical adventure it depicts.

Powell’s adventure fades into the background as the adventure of the cast takes on much greater urgency. What we’re really watching is a fantasy of the theater every bit as ideologically loaded as Powell’s government-sanctioned first voyage. And so the play becomes a play about theatrical invention: how to represent the rowing of boats, getting thrown into rapids, hanging from cliffs, meeting Native Americans, cooking food, and, of course, playing white American men.

Every action in the play is a primer on how to represent that action. There’s some delight in that, but soon that delight grows tiresome and feels as formulaic as any sitcom. The cast is game and three (Libby King, Rosie Hallet, and Sarita Oçon) deliver standout performances, but to what end? Backhaus has no real interest in Powell’s quest or really any of these men.

So, I think the true way to look at Men in Boats is as an incredible failure of imagination even as it touts and celebrates what imagination can bring to history. The actual story is stirring and complex, a moment in our past worthy of investigation, critique, celebration, whatever your game. Yet you can’t get to any of that without a real vision or philosophy of history. And a real vision would never reduce these complex people to stick figure goofballs.

For Backhaus, jokes are character and so you get moments like this where Powell and one of the men, William Dunn, argue over how to get a mountain named after yourself.

DUNN. If I’m gonna name something after myself. I want it to pop.

POWELL. You know the Unwritten Rules.

DUNN. Well, yeah, but they’re Unwritten, we only follow them half the time.

POWELL. Let’s go through em. Just to make sure we’re covering some of the bases.

DUNN. The Unwritten Rules for Getting Something Named After You ARE:

1. You are the sole discover of the thing

2. You Accomplished Something directly in relation to the thing

3. No one objects and everyone agrees.

POWELL. Can you prove these points?

DUNN. Yup!

The scene goes on and on in this cloying manner, as if there’s something charming, innocent, and revealing about dim-wittedness. But people aren’t stupid and if you think they are you lose elections to them, even when you have the majority.

What we get from Men on Boats is an illusion of real engagement and experimentation. It’s selling radical critique, revisionist history, feminist ideals, and theatrical invention, but it’s all packaging without soul or sense or care, just idle gestures to make us feel that something has happened. And it most definitely has not.

A free audience should revolt and demand more.

‘Men on Boats’ runs through December 16 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here