There is an old Slate article that I am particularly fond of: a mother is reading The Hobbit to her 5-year-old daughter, and the daughter gets it into her head that Bilbo Baggins is a girl. She won’t be dissuaded, and insists that her mom read the story “the right way.” The mother says the pronoun switch was easy and that Bilbo made for a resourceful and funny heroine. “Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.”
That story sprang to my mind a few times during The Catamounts’ production of Men on Boats. As the theater describes it, Men on Boats tells the “rollicking, thrilling, true(ish) story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado River” with a wrinkle: all ten men on the harrowing expedition are played by women.
Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’ specific brand of gender-bending falls in line with that of Ms. Bilbo Baggins: no one makes an issue of it. While doing her research, the playwright felt the itch to play John Wesley Powell, leader of this storied expedition, and so she made it happen by writing an otherwise straightforward play but insisting the casting include no men. It is refreshing, watching women play these diverse and interesting roles — without the story centering around, or even nodding to, the gender swap.
At first I was concerned that I would not be able to keep the ten men straight, but Amanda Berg Wilson’s direction, Backhaus’ script and the talent of the ensemble combines to create such a clear, sharp sense of each character. Powell, the historic figure which so charmed the playwright, becomes a brave, encouraging and quietly uncertain leader in GerRee Hinshaw’s portrayal. Missy Moore’s Hawkins, the cook, is fiery and physical; at the same time, you might forget Edith Weiss’ Old Shady is on stage until she begins humming. Brothers O.G. and Seneca Howland (Ilasiea Gray and Joelle A. Montoya, respectively) are quiet too, until they are separated when a boat capsizes and we see them reach desperately for one another. Backhaus effectively shuffles the characters — these two are at odds, these three have an understanding, this one would follow that one into hell — so that before long we feel we know each one well.
Director Berg Wilson is also credited as choreographer — a critical role, as all scenes featuring the boats are treated almost as dances. These frequent scenes literally move the play forward, driving the expedition down the uncharted Colorado River through a number of potential perils. What could be a lot of dull pantomiming becomes some of the most pulse-quickening content of the show, and Berg Wilson finds ways to keep changing it up to delight, frighten and surprise.
The Catamounts have also made much of the Carsen Theater, a 50-seat black box space which I have not always seen used to such impressive effect. Kristof Janezic’s lighting design is full of warm, diffuse sepia tones that play well with Steffani Day’s playful but appropriate costumes. The main elements of M. Curtis Grittner’s scenic design consist of a large, well-lit map of the expedition and an enormous frame that suggest we are viewing a museum exhibition. Brian Freeland’s sound design includes not only large Ennio Morricone-style moments but also small fireplace crackles and snake rattles. Under Berg Wilson’s direction these all join together to feel evocative and complete.
Men on Boats is pure adventure. The Catamounts have sold out their entire run in advance, but have added a Wednesday evening performance due to demand.
I am two for two on Catamounts productions; as I have said before, sign me up for whatever this company dreams up next.
Erica Reid is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.