From Jan. 10 through Jan. 19, Playhouse Merced will present Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men On Boats,” a dramatization of the exploration of the upper portion of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell and his crew in 1869.
By way of an all-female cast, the production will offer a new perspective on an era when women were not allowed the same opportunities as men.
Alyse Neubert, the Playhouse’s Artistic Director, is especially looking forward to the play’s run as she is familiar with explorer Powell, having grown up in Southwestern Colorado.
Neubert told the Times, “My dad was interested in Powell and Southwest Colorado rivers because he was an instructor for Outward Bound, the people who are the original river, mountain and backpacking guides and basically founded outdoor education in the way we know it today. The lifestyle is definitely in my blood.
“The play about the journey of Powell and his crew is played by females at the request of the author. This opens up an opportunity for performers who don’t usually get to play roles in these types of stories. Women and minorities and those other than white males have gone down these rivers, and it is good to see this kind of narrative.
“However, the story is not about gender. It’s about people who are bonding and people who have relationships, and it’s their journey. From a director’s point of view, it’s nice to see how the women in the show have bonded and really care about doing justice to the real life characters they’re playing and to the idea of the show itself.
“There are 10 women that make up the cast, the youngest being 18 with several a lot older. It’s a really great cast. We have people who have never been in a show and those who are returning to the theater from a hiatus. It’s really exciting!
“The people this story is about were conducting expeditions in the mid to late 1800s. Powell and his crew were the first Government-sanctioned expedition to chart the Colorado River. They were mapping it and charting the land and the river. It’s part of the westward expansion of the United States and the Manifest Destiny.
“They started out with four boats and they ended up completely destroying one of them and leaving another behind, so they only made it out with two boats. It was an extremely dangerous journey to take, especially at that time.
“Throughout the play, we encounter waterfalls and whirlpools and people falling overboard. Powell was an Army veteran who had fought in the Civil War and his arm was amputated, so he went down these rivers with one arm and no prosthetic. All the crew members went down the rivers without any safety gear such as life jackets.
“The play considers the advantages and disadvantages of opening up the frontier, and brings attention to the people hurt along the way, and illustrates that even though Powell and his expedition was the first Government-sanctioned group, there were Native Americans and other groups that had gone down the river before.”
When asked the greatest challenges she faced in dramatizing the journey, Neubert told the Times, “The greatest challenges were having that many bodies on boats on stage and having them go down the river, which is done with a mix of lighting and movement work. I think it’ll make sense when people see it.
“I hope people come out to see it. We have a lot of great people working on the show. The use of women in the show makes it novel, and we hope people enjoy this fun show about a band of individuals on the river.”
For further information about Playhouse Merced’s production of “Men On Boats,” those interested can contact the box office at (209) 725-8587.