In 1869, John Wesley Powell led an expedition of his peers—nine other adventure seeking straight, white males—to chart the Colorado River.
Hundreds of years later, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus developed an ingenious way to tell his tale by requiring that any theatrical company who wants to stage her work, Men on Boats, agree to one basic caveat: No straight, white males can be in the cast.
“It’s a truly unique challenge, but one that really takes the audience on an unexpected journey,” explained Dawn Simmons, Director of Men on Boats now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage Company. “There are some funny moments in the play, but it’s never played as camp. The humor is in the dialogue. Instead, the actors all play their parts as honestly as possible to who they are as individuals; they aren’t up there pretending to be straight, white men. They may be gay or transgender or nonbinary and that part of their being becomes part of the character they’re playing.”
Along with challenging the audience’s preconceived notion of which performer is playing which part, and perhaps why, Simmons stressed that the unique casting of the play helps expand the viewers’ mind into redefining just what a hero is these days.
“People may be uncomfortable, at first, but I really believe that the play is so strongly written, and with this cast so strongly performed, that they will eventually embrace it,” Simmons said. “Even though it’s set in 1869, the dialogue is so smart and fast-paced…there’s a lot of 2017 about it that everyone will be able to relate to. And the sheer physicality of the performances will impress everyone. We’ve all worked extremely hard to make sure the scenes going down the river look as realistic as possible. Our mantra throughout rehearsals was that if the actors believe they’re going down the rapids, then the audience will believe it too.”
In a way, Simmons is directing two plays, one being a social commentary about the nature of heroism and the other being a well-stage action/adventure story about the risks and rewards of challenging the unknown. Maybe her greatest achievement with Men on Boats was blending the two together so seamlessly.
“I want people to walk out of the theater with one thought in their mind,” she said. “Anyone can be a hero.”
MEN ON BOATS will run through October 7 in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion. Ticket prices start at $25. For more information, call the box office at 617.933.8600 or visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com .