Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus did an interesting thing with her 2015 Off Broadway hit play Men on Boats. She based it on the journal entries of Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell as he led a band of men to chart the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon as part of an 1869 expedition. But she wrote instructions that the 10 characters be cast with all women. No men in this play called Men on Boats. Why?
Is it an inversion on the old theater tradition of men playing women’s roles, as in kabuki or Shakespeare? A curve ball just to see how people react? Maybe. Its flipping of the genders has been equated with Lin-Manuel Miranda switching the Anglo founding fathers to people of color. But it’s done with such little fanfare that it’s easy to question the motive. It’s being directed by theater veteran Ellen Brooks.
“I can’t find much information on [Backhaus’] political stance,” Brooks says.
Brooks adds that she likes the visceral physicality of the play, the ruggedness of its characters. “If you think of people from the American West, anyone from Annie Oakley to the frontier women, they conquered and explored in the same way as the men did,” she says.
It’s a funny work, done in modern vernacular, but it’s also supposedly fairly faithful. It’s a play that doesn’t seem anxiously engaged with the history of discrimination against women, but matter of factly suggests that it didn’t have to be that way.
“It makes the audience look at the story differently,” Brooks says.
MEN ON BOATS is performed 7:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm Sundays, Oct. 26-Nov. 10, at Studio Theater, Hartnell College Performing Arts Center, Building K, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. $26/general; $12/child 10-15; $24/senior, military; free/Hartnell student; $20/other students with ID; $5/student rush cash only. 755-6816, westernstage.com