The latest production by Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre, “Men on Boats,” may end up being one of the most underappreciated shows of the season. A play about an epic expedition to the Grand Canyon, with an all-female cast, held in the tiny Studio 60 in the basement? Yes, the notion seems ridiculous. And that is exactly the point.
The script is based on the real adventures of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 government-sponsored expedition to map the Grand Canyon with a crew of nine. Jacklyn Backhaus’s concept is clever and subversive on several levels. The casting of women in the roles of the explorers undermines the hyper-masculinity nature of such adventuring.
The script utilizes actual events that occurred during Powell’s expedition, reinterpreting them through a lens that exposes the hypocrisy of the Manifest Destiny theory. For this reason, having a familiarity with the historical facts before attending the play will increase the audience’s appreciation of the script. A quick scan of the Wikipedia page will suffice to enhance the subtle humor related to the naming of natural landmarks, relying on Native Americans for survival, and the premise of historical legacy.
James Thomason’s excellent lighting provides all the special effects needed for one to suspend disbelief and accept the tiny stage as a river running through a big canyon. This effect is enhanced by the cast’s all-in physicality, guided by movement director Alexis Black. After a goofy scene that introduces the large cast, they quickly distinguish the unique aspects of their characters. Perhaps the most fun is watching Dunn, played by Jayna Carden, posture, literally, for leadership over Powell, played by Eli Drake.
“Men on Boats” is deceptively simple, from script to staging. Backhaus neither celebrates nor demonizes the explorers, but investigates the complexity of Western Expansion from a contemporary, informed and entertaining framework. Like the expedition staple rabbit jerky, the more one gnaws on it, the more value one gets from the work.
“Men on Boats” $15, General admission
$13, Seniors, $10 Students Through Nov. 18 7:30 p.m., Tuesday- Thursday 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday Studio 60 Theatre 542 Auditorium Road # 149, East Lansing (517) 355-6690 www.theatre.msu.edu