Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Men on Boats

Men on Boats written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Rebekah Lane runs at the Mad Cow Theater through February 9, 2020. The show outlines the story of an 1869 expedition, where a one-armed captain named John Wesley Powell (Cynthia Beckert), and a crew of insane, yet loyal volunteers, set out to chart the course of the Colorado River. Powell was a Civil War Veteran and personal friend of President Grant. Though he himself could not hold a paddle, he lead the  government sanctioned journey down the wild rapids leading through Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, and through the most dangerous waterway of all, in the Grand Canyon. 

The ten explorers were divided among three boats.  Though historically all men, the cast was all woman, which added to the bravado as they overcame each obstetrical on this harrowing journey. As an artist I found the pace of the show dauntingly fast and furious. To simulate the ride down river the cast would crouch behind one another facing the audience and move as a unit to the rivers every ebb, flow and swell. In slow motion one of the crew might loose balance as if a ballerina and be caught by another crew member.

The canyon walls of the set had crystalline cubes set into it that seemed to have lines of text on them. I didn't know what to make of them. The painted river on stage would be ignored when the crew were out of the boats and at camp. This involved some suspension of disbelief when crew were sitting lying or standing in the water. In general the stage was a tight fit for the full cast of 10.

On the expedition the crew grew tighter together like a band of brothers as the odds mounted. They also began to doubt one another and grow on each other's nerves. When they suffered the loss of a boat and supplies, at Disaster Falls, they argued, postured and pretended, and to relieve   pressure they would name mountains after themselves. When it looked like supplies would not last, three of the crew decide to split off, hoping to find a Mormon settlement rather than ride the insane rapids. The remaining seven decided to brave the dangerous rapids to reach the other side.

At one point the entire cast stood in awe of the majestic Grand Canyon that stood as their adversary to survival. I imagined the canyon walls illuminated by the golden glow of the a setting sun. For me the comedic highlight was a rattle snake that made its way into camp. All the bravado was suddenly replaced by shrieks of terror. Considering the dire circumstances of the expedition, that snake seemed a minor thing to fear.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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