Big Dawg Productions’ latest offering, “Men on Boats” by Jacyln Backhaus, seeks to chart a course of exploration. Ostensibly about the 1869 expedition of the Grand Canyon led by John Wesley Powell, it promises a different slant on storytelling largely by casting an entirely female or femme-identifying group of varied races to portray the all-white male explorers.
Donna Troy’s beautiful set greets audiences who enter Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Imagine the intimidation of recreating the majesty of the Grand Canyon on a small stage. It’s a daunting task at best. The rock crevice cutouts and waterfall are particularly lovely. Visually, from beginning to end, audiences will feel enraptured.
In addition to Troy’s work, there is the sparkle in the performers’ eyes as they encounter each new and beautiful locale on their journey. Four boats contain 10 explorers: aboard the Emma Dean we meet John Wesley Powell (Eleanor Stafford), William Dunn (Erin Hunter) and John Colton Sumner (Caitlin Walker). The Kitty Clyde’s Sister carries Old Shady (Grace Carlyle Berry) and Bradley (Aurora Flores). The aptly named No-Name transports the Howland brothers: O.G. (B’Ellana Duquesne) and Seneca (Mariah Martin), as well as Frank Goodman (Lupin Byers). The final vessel, the Maid of the Canyon, has the skilled labor: Hall the mapmaker (Emily Gomez) and Hawkins the cook (Sarah Matthews). Director Beth Swindell’s staging of the boats on the river is incredibly engaging. The cast hold and manipulate the boats so when they go around rocks, through rapids or over a waterfall, the audience really feels the experience. To call it compelling is an understatement at best.
The cast sell the experience, and they do wonders with a lacking script. Stafford’s Powell is tasked with leading an expedition through a canyon in spite of having only one arm. There are more than a few difficulties to face under such circumstances. Hunter’s Dunn is forever calling out Powell in front of everyone for whatever trouble they encounter. We all have the friend, don’t we? It does seem to be an old pattern with them. If anything, Stafford and Hunter seem to have such a wonderful rapport that not only do they resolve any potential speed bumps in their relationship quickly and easily, they are just a joy to watch. It’s like two very old friends who have a shorthand together. The almost struggle between Powell and Dunn is the closest Backhaus gets to actually writing a plot. They flirt with the possibility of a conflict. But Backhaus hasn’t given them much to work with: nothing boils over into two actual camps that face off. When three members of the expedition leave, they go with everyone’s blessing and so much good will that, if Backhaus was trying to suggest it as a climax of the conflict, it sure as hell gets past the audience.
Berry’s rendition of Powell’s brother, Old Shady, is one of the funniest performances in the show. Somehow Berry even manages to look put upon and bored while trying to row through rapids. Shady is not really impressed with much or many people. But dependable is written all over her.
The antithesis of Shady is Flores’ Bradley, an over-the-top eager and gregarious creature. Oh, gods! I thought in a moment of self recognition. Yep, Flores radiates enthusiasm and a loquacious spirit that just can’t be stopped. In her defense, she is also very generous and giving. Matthews’ cook, Hawkins, is always busy. Any homemaker can relate to the obsessive mental lists of flour, bacon and other supplies. How to use, and when? How to plan for transport and make sure nothing is wasted? I admire how she manages to smile through it all.
The biggest struggle the group faces is their ever-dwindling supplies. As the person responsible for feeding the expedition, Hawkins is most likely to find herself the object of immediate anger and fear. Outside of getting tired of eating apples, Backhaus again has failed to include much in the script that would communicate the magnitude of what they could really face. Man vs. nature is one of the acknowledged conflict forms, and though she has the river and possible starvation as potential struggles, there is almost no dialogue to communicate the danger other than a road trip gone haywire.
Gomez’s Hall is also trying to figure out how to make maps with less equipment than promised as a result of the loss of the No-Name. Ever studious, she is working and working, doing her best to compensate for the problem—but, still, these working conditions are limiting what is possible.
Meanwhile, the Howland Brothers are so over the irritating little Englishman in their boat. Duquesne and Martin are believable as a pair of siblings who together can take on anything—including getting tied to a fence on a winter’s night. Though, personally, Duquesne’s portrayal of Tsauwiat, one of the Native Americans they leave Goodman with, is my favorite character. There is a calm disbelief over how these crazy white people are still at it. It is a disbelief that can only be met with a chuckle and a little bit of admiration mixed with concern. It’s very telling to watch.
If there is one performance that struck my tree-hugging heart—and one I wish I could get the Wilmington City Council to watch—it is Caitlin Walker’s ode to trees as John Colton Sumner. When in doubt, she reminisces about a lovely day with a tree. The Grand Canyon is not overflowing with arboreal life, but when it gets slow going there, she brings up the beauty of trees. It is a very Walter Mitty-like response and is absolutely delightful to watch.
It is a very fun and funny evening, especially the editorial comments coming through from sound designer Steve Vernon. Vernon never misses a chance to make an auditory pun. Folks should pay attention to the music between the scenes for some good laughs. Erin Hunter’s aquatic ballet and her trying to grab a rope from another boat is an image I will carry the rest of my days. When the No-Name breaks apart and Byers is cast upon the rock, the cast’s struggle and scramble to rescue the Howlands is incredibly well done.
Getting back to Backhaus’ script: Though the casting of women and gender-fluid/femme-identifying people is a selling point for the show, Backhaus hasn’t made a compelling case for it. Even her author’s note in the program seems to reference the idea she would never get to play a role like this, so she decided to make the entire cast female. It seems she missed an opportunity to explore that within the text; she made the choice, a choice that right now is timely and provocative. Locally, we have seen productions struggle with this: the aborted all-male production of “Steel Magnolias” leaps to mind, as does the ongoing discussion of “Santaland Diaries” not yet featuring a woman as the main character, Crumpet.
In the last 10 minutes, Backhaus introduces a character, Mr. Asa (Lupin Byers) who delivers a monologue that is essentially a long-form version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s chorus, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Now if that question had been central to the script from the beginning, not only would there have been a purpose in the gender choices for casting that served the story, there would have been a plot.
Instead, we have 10 incredibly interesting entertainers and performers onstage giving their all to create a memorable evening. They make the show exciting and fun in spite of the playwright. It is not a commercial for visiting The Grand Canyon; they make it look pretty scary, actually. There were several moments I was gripping my arm rests and lifting my legs from the floor because the explorers had me convinced the whole room was going to tilt downward over a waterfall. But when I watched Stafford’s face as she beheld each new discovery, it was absolute magic. Really, the performers continue with that magic over and over again.