Play Review: ‘Men on Boats’ is Off-the-Canyon Walls Funny

Photo by Morgan Pross.

Written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Albion College Theater department chair Zach Fischer, “Men on Boats”  is a canny portrayal of the 1869 Powell Expedition from the raging Colorado River to the Grand Canyon.

In the play, John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, leads a brawny band of men to partake in a government-sanctioned adventure to the American West: four boats, ten men, and one river. The play’s expedition is based on the perception of Powell’s journaling, which is shown in a few scenes as he attempts to write with only one hand.

“Men on Boats,” which runs from Thursday through Sunday this week, is easy-to-follow, lighthearted dialogue is similar to Hamilton, both being historically informative and engaging, but “Men on Boats” lacks the musical incorporation. It’s is sheer delight and rollicking.

Backhaus takes a sharp left turn from an all-male cast. Believe it or not, the cast of “Men on Boats” is comprised of all women. Although the real Powell would have imagined an applicable cast of cisgender white males, Backhaus intends the cast of this play to be of diverse actors who are of female-identifying, genderfluid and non-gender conforming.

It may be hard to grow accustomed to the portrayal of the male roles at first because the inconsistencies of the anachronisms are jarring. However, you rapidly get used to the portrayal that weaves into the fabric of the performance.

The subversive deconstruction of the social expectations of men adventuring is displayed through the bondage of the group of explorers, who act on desperate situations. The machismo of the soldiers is challenged as they encounter their potential dinner: snakes. All people have their fears, but the melodramatic response to a mere snake shows how vulnerable the band of soldiers can be. They even ask Mormons for rations.

The fallible bravery of the band of pioneers is represented through a repetitive journey raging through a torrent of water, docking on parched land, surviving the masked dangers of the night and surpassing their expectations. Although repetitive, each landing varies by the bonds, jokes, reminisces and arguments that captivate the audience.I was easily put into the character’s shoes because of the metaphor in the reality of the Powell Expedition and my modern life experiences. We all encounter obstacles in our ways, but we all have similar reactions that is portrayed in the encounters of the pioneers. You might even see your own strengths and weaknesses and learn to accept them because each pioneer learns to integrate their strengths to surge out of the challenges the expedition brought.

The acting went beyond my expectations. The characters were resilient and  confident. Each actor exceedingly fit the character’s personalities that created a humorous, cohesive ambience. One might even say that the actors portrayed the characters personality so well that it might even be their off-stage personality. Cedria Grant had a powerful representation of the intelligent, honest and witty personality of Hall. All of the actors exemplify their intersected personalities that you will  love.

The sense of humor throughout “Men on Boats” steers the connotation of the repetitiveness of the journey. Old Shady is reserved but has his small quirks. The brotherly love of O.G and Senaca Howland correctly depict the love-hate relationship with younger brothers. The amateur adventurer Bradley is the pineapple in your pizza,—not what you expected but it blends into an ensemble—while one might say Frank is the black sheep who seeks to experience the luxuries of expediting.

William Dunn’s need to explore and dominate the wilds and attempt to name a mountain after himself is the postmodern sensibility in the play. Both William and Powell demonstrate powerful leaders but encounter situations where they clash. They imitate a best-friend relationship that will make you empathize. Hall and Hawkins will show you what it is to be a true friend as they stick together throughout the journey. The strong language and confident acting left the audience laughing out loud.

The clash between the men aboard on the Maid of the Canyon and the Howland brothers aboard the No-Name runs shivers down your spine in anticipation of physical responses. Will they react in a physical brawl?

The simple pioneer clothing will teleport you back to the 1800s, and the canyon backdrop scenery will give you the appropriate Western vibe.

The bright bursts of light were shocking, but the thrilling visual stimulation of the brawny men surviving the raging boats crashing compensates for it. The bursts of light are only used a couple of times, so don’t let that shy you away from a off-the-canyon-walls funny play.

As they approach their destination to the Grand Canyon, the expedition’s up-and-down journey comes to an end. What will happen after completing the expedition? Do they all live in luxury? Was it all a scam? Do they stick together?

As the end of the year approaches and stress from school will inevitably grow, a good laugh will be an ideal remedy and “Men on Boats” will definitely exceed your expectations and draw you away from your stress. Grab a friend to share the laughter at the Albion College Black Box Theatre.

You will not regret making time for this 90-minute production full of anticipation, thrill and exhilaration that comes along with the exceptional acting.

Admission is free for Albion students and faculty with an Albion ID card at the Black Box Theatre. Otherwise, the cost is $5 a ticket.


Available Showtimes:

Wednesday, Nov. 14th 8:00 P.M.

Thursday, Nov. 15th 8:00 P.M.

Friday, Nov. 16th 8:00 P.M.

Saturday, Nov. 17th 2:00 P.M.

Saturday, Nov. 17th 8:00 P.M.



John Wesley Powell……….Emily Budlong

William Dunn……………….Savannah Manning

John Colton Sumner………Juji Berry

Old Shady…………………..Maci Moss

Bradley………………………Ava Boyd

O.G………………………….Jessica Neal

Seneca (Bishop)……………..Sharon Harrison

Frank (Mr. Asa)……………….Samantha Kelly

Hall………………………….Cedria Grant

Hawkins…………………….Mercedes Pace

About Irene Corona-Avila 48 Articles
Irene is a fourth-year student and a prideful Georgia Peach from Atlanta. She is a biochemistry major with a minor in . Aside from running and writing, you can find Irene dancing freely or talking up a pun. She's currently reading a book on gravity, but she can't seem to put it down.

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