Thursday, February 7, 2019

Notes on Olympia Little Theatre’s Men on Boats

by Alec Clayton

Back L-R: Kendra Malm as "Walter Henry (Old Shady) Powell", Andrea Weston-Smart as "Oramel (O.G.) Howland", Susana Bailén Acevedo as "Seneca Howland", Jesse Morrow as "John Wesley Powell", Shannon Agostinelli as "William Dunn", Heather R. Christopher as "John Colton Sumner"
Front L-R: Mariah Smith as "George Young Bradley", Amy Shephard as "William Robert Hawkins", Edith Campbell as "Andrew Hall" – photo by Hannah Eklund

Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Hannah Eklund for Olympia Little Theatre is unlike anything ever seen on Olympia stages — with the possible exception of Playhouse Creatures performed by Theater Artists Olympia, with two of the same cast members, Heather Christopher and Jesse Morrow.
Men on Boats is the adventure tale of one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell (Morrow) and his band of cis-gendered, all-white, government-sanctioned explorers who were the first such men (cis-gendered, white and government-sanctioned) to travel down the Green and Colorado Rivers into the heart of the Grand Canyon.
The playwright specified that the cast should consist entirely of people who are not male and not all white. “I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender conforming,” she wrote in casting notes. Interestingly, there was little if any overt feminist or LGBTQ content in the script, but simply seeing these women actors, including a self-identified transgender woman and a Black woman, in the roles of macho, swaggering male adventurers makes a powerful and powerfully humorous point that is accented by the use of contemporary vernacular in a 19th century setting.
These men in real life — and the play is based on a true story — would never have used such modern phrases as “that sucks” and “that’s cool,” so when these actors say such things it points out the silliness of some of their preening and posturing, their unnecessary squabbles, and their pride in wanting to name mountains after themselves. It is a version of breaking the fourth wall for comic effect and it works beautifully.
The set designed by Michael Christopher is outstanding. Sets at OLT are typically little more than a backdrop and scattered furniture. Christopher’s set has multiple levels and a wonderful painting of the canyon walls created by Christopher with Eklund, Patrick Gilmore and Mariah Smith.
The play opens with the men standing in four boats (represented by wooden prows which they can lift and carry), rowing with all their might and shouting directions to each other such as warnings about rocks, rapids and waterfalls. They are loud — ear-splittingly loud — and they shout over each other so that the audience can’t clearly hear everything that is said. That is fine. No one needs to hear everything that’s said. Their shouting sets the exciting mood and establishes the aggressive masculinity of these nine brawny men.
Movements are synchronized in an abstract and balletic fashion. Every few minutes the action freezes long enough for each of the men in turn to introduce themselves.
Despite the comical digs at their masculine strutting, there is a lot of serious adventure as boats are capsized, precious provisions are lost, and the men argue among themselves.
The manner in which some of the actors pantomimed rowing the boats bothered me. Their hand movements were more like pedaling a bicycle than rowing a boat, and the moving of props by stage hands unfortunately takes the audience momentarily out of the action during almost every set stage. This is an unfortunate distraction that can’t be helped but could have been lessened.
The cast is outstanding. Morrow plays Major Powell as loud and proud with outsized strutting and posing. She sways her body side-to-side like a metronome when she moves. Christopher plays the proud John Colton Sumner with great intensity. Andrea Weston-Smart is terrific as Oramel (O.G.) Howland, and she doubles nicely as Chief Tsauwiat, an Indian who helps the men. Kendra Malm turns in what might well be her most accomplished job of acting yet as Powell’s quiet brother Walter Henry, known as Old Shady. He doesn’t say much, but he spits a lot and sings lovely plaintive tunes when the men are gathered around the campfire at night. Old Shady epitomized the strong but silent Western hero, and Malm nails the part.
Men on Boats is a theatrical experience that should not be missed.

Men on Boats
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave NE, Olympia
7:25 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 17
(360) 786-9484,

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