Undertaking Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus means tackling a fractured narrative following Powell and his titular men on boats down the Grand Canyon. The story finds itself divided into sections of land and river, where the latter becomes focused more on physicality and staging than dialogue or character interaction. The play is no outstanding work of narrative, with a straightforward tale and awkwardly written dialogue. The characters take turns shamelessly engaging in explicit exposition near the beginning, and even later in the play have difficulty speaking like normal humans. In order to successfully produce this play, the cast and crew have a number of challenges to tackle, ranging from the physicality required to bringing more meaning to a surprisingly mundane tale.
One noteworthy aspect of the production is a distinct lack of boats. In terms of budgeting and mechanics, the decision obviously makes sense; it would be absurd and likely jarring for an audience to watch boats on wheels moved about the stage. However, it does bring about questions of how to stage river scenes. These tend to ramp up in intensity of physical expression throughout the play, and the director must be able to have actors drowning, flailing, and pulled back on board boats. To do this convincingly is an entire set of challenges that, if solved well, could lend to an enjoyable experience.
Although these river scenes are perhaps the most obvious problem presented by the play, it will arguably be more difficult to keep the audience engaged on land. The beginning is no doubt quite boring, and not a fantastic way of introducing characters. The role call will detract from the building of the world of the play, and some nuance is required to answer it. Additionally, the characters, save for a few, fail to differentiate themselves well throughout the story. These smaller roles interact in mostly human ways, but some lines are absolutely curious in their writing. These idiosyncrasies again raise questions about the play selection process, but do not spell automatic failure for the play. If handled with aplomb, these characters have the chance to be human but are nevertheless unlikely to shine.
Although the poor writing weakens the smaller roles in general, there are a few characters that could truly save the play. Powell, Dunn, and Old Shady stand out as characters with the most development and opportunity. Powell is a one armed leader to the group who clashes with Dunn throughout the play, and he must find humility through his crew’s loss of faith. Alternatively, Dunn rises to believe in himself and challenge Powell. This dynamic is probably the most interesting part of an otherwise poor play. The casting of the show includes all women, and it remains to be seen if this is done for gender politics. It was intentionally cast this way, and it is not the first time the show has been done with an all female cast. As a result, the show will need to distinguish itself from other performances in some other way. If the play does fail, it is likely not so much an issue of director and cast, but more so of SDA’s play selection process. This season’s plays nearly beg students to question the process and search for more input.