The newest production at the Omaha Community Playhouse in the Howard Drew Theatre, Men on Boats, is, according to the play’s description “The true(ish) history of an 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of insane yet loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River.” The story is “true(ish)” because, the playwright requests in her casting note that, “The characters in Men On Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.” And so, you end up with a story about some men who decided to chart the course of the Colorado River, being played by everyone who is not a cisgendered white male. It sounds complicated, but really it’s not. In fact, it’s quite genius. This type of casting helps showcase the diversity of Omaha theatre, and it’s great to see some different faces onstage. Plus, this version, is pretty funny. Let’s face it–stories about our history (our meaning the American West) can be a little boring. They often take themselves way too seriously. But this play does not. It recognizes the men of the Powell expedition for the hardships they endured and their contribution to history, but it also pokes fun at the fact that these explorers could have left at any time, and the river they were mapping had already been mapped and explored by plenty of people who had come before them.
This ability to both recognize and de-bunk comes from the added layer of switching the gender of these explorers. This switch allows the audience to take a step back from the story and critically examine the facts that are being told. Obviously, the men on these boats didn’t use contemporary language. And obviously they were originally cisgender men. But the story of friendship and exploration crosses gender lines. In many ways, telling this story in this way is quite Brechtian. The audience is always aware they are in a theatre watching a play–there is little re-creation of reality. Historicizing the play in this fashion allows for deeper critical thinking. It frees up this play to ask important questions like, “what stories are we missing” and “who is in charge of telling our stories?” Freeing the script from the tyranny of reality also makes it funny. In fact, it makes it hilarious. In this particular production these actors demonstrate that comedy should not be a male-dominated field. In particular, Daena Schweiger, who plays Old Shady, shines in her sudden moments of speaking. Old Shady is usually pretty quiet, but then she subtly cuts into the dialogue in such a surprising way you’ll be startled into laughter.
There is quite a bit of peril on this boat trip and these actors re-enact those moments in rather un-perilous ways, which adds to the humor and critical lens of this play. Falling out of a boat in the rapids of the Colorado river is no laughing matter, but since the play takes itself a little less seriously these moments become almost farce–in a good way. Once again, it allows the audience to take a critical beat and ask “what is this story really telling us?” The director, Amy Lane, knows how to get her actors to pump up the comedic moments. They play up the absurd, but still allow for the darkness that always lies just underneath the happy. It’s true that this story is having a good time, but it is based on real people who went through a fairly rough journey and so it’s great to take another look at this story, but to also remember the real people who actually suffered from hunger and the dangers of the journey.
The sets and costumes are simple but effective. They manage to create the feeling of the 1869 wild frontier but it’s not over-done. Simple lighting changes indicate the moment of entry into the Grand Canyon, and the boats are definitely boats, but cut into halves in order to make them more manageable for the cast to carry around. In short the set does it’s job in helping the audience to imagine the time and place, but doesn’t try to faithfully re-create the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
This production is fun. It’s worth anyone’s time, if only to support opportunities for stories told in new voices. But even if you don’t care about that, it’s just a fun play in general. You’ll find yourself laughing, and, sometimes, crying, right along with this ragtag group of explorers.
Men on Boats is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse in the Howard Drew Theatre from May 3 – May 26, 2019. Tickets are $30 general admission. You can reserve tickets online at http://www.omahaplayhouse.com/tickets/view/boats/ or by calling the box office at 402.553.0800.