Riverside’s ‘Men on Boats’ is sheer delight

Men on Boats

Riverside Theatre — through July 28

Cast members of Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell took a crew of nine other men on an expedition to traverse and map the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. In just over three months, six of them emerged on the other side of the canyon, having completed the journey more or less in tact.

Some may argue that, in 2019 — 150 years later — there’s no new territory left for men to explore, no way to resurrect that feeling of awe, that weight of duty, that deep courage that accompanied the wondrous accomplishments of that time.

Cast members of ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

They’re probably right.

But women and nonbinary folk are breaking new ground every day.

Who better, then, to convey the wonder of early exploration than the people who are still exploring? After all, as Men in Boats takes pains to tell us, exploration does not necessarily mean being the first. The characters in Jaclyn Backhaus’ 2016 play would be lost without the indigenous population and a few rogue Mormons who had already settled in the American West. But there are other ways to be pioneers, ways that the average cishet white man in 2019 can’t necessarily identify with as deeply.

So Backhaus ousted them from her script, decreeing that the explorers be played by non-men. What results is an incredibly deep dive into exactly that feeling of awe, that weight of duty and that deep courage that many women and nonbinary folk today share with a group of men from 150 years ago. The dual language, telling two stories in tandem with every line, positions Backhaus in the Tom Stoppard vein of playwriting, deftly weaving together past and present, heavy with allusion and equally as rewarding on the surface as it is when each layer is pulled back.

Jordan Arnold (L) as Dunn, Jessica Link as Powell in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

It should come as no surprise to Iowa City theater aficionados that Riverside Theatre has assembled a cast and crew more than equal to this funny, insightful and epic play. In fact, watching the formidable ensemble on stage is at times a painful reminder of how few plays of this weight center or even showcase, let alone bring together en masse, female and NB performers. To see this area A-list of actors share the stage is in itself well worth the price of admission.

From the moment I sat down, I loved this production. The set, designed by Chris Rich, is stunning. The opening movement piece of the show (Bo Frazier) thrills. It is both a testament to the wonders of collaboration and cooperation and a reminder that, while those are traits often more attributed to women in the 21st century, men such as the adventurers portrayed in the play once possessed them in abundance as well. When you must rely on your neighbor to survive, you simply do.

The set of ‘Men on Boats’ at Riverside Theatre, designed by Chris Rich.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The performances across the board were gorgeous, but there are a few I wish to call out specifically. Emmy Lane Palmersheim is someone who I have watched grow up on the stage. I knew they were a strong performer, but in this part, they simply shone. Rarely have I seen as much life on stage as each time Palmersheim’s Hawkins entered.

Sarah Hinzman (L) and Emmy Lane Palmersheim have a boatmate heart-to-heart in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

I was extremely excited to finally catch a show with Jo Jordan. The reviews I’ve edited and photos I’ve seen of her work gave me high expectations, and her Seneca did not disappoint. She was tough, cool and focused, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Lauren Galliart as Bradley was a delight, always upping the stakes, for both comedy and tragedy. And the theater caught its breath whenever Karlē Meyers’ Old Shady began to sing.

To highlight these four is not to slight any of the other members of the delightful ensemble cast — some, in fact, such as Rachel Howell as Sumner and Sarah Hinzman as Hall, felt woefully underused. But when the rapids hit and everyone needed to pull together, this cast did.

(L-R) Rachel Howell, Jo Jordan, Karlē Meyers and Lauren Galliart facing down some dangerous river in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Although my praise for these performances is deservedly effusive, there were beats that pulled me out of the moment during the show. Actors repeatedly held the bottom of a frying pan just off the “fire,” for instance — and, to that end, it was never clear why some props were present and others pantomimed, no clear line of demarcation between reality and play.

But, like the occasional bit of modern dialog dropped into the text, that uncertainty was often more benefit than detriment. Other idiosyncrasies were less so, like the strange, weighty moment of the last fresh apple being shared, the rest being mealy, after a speech a few scenes earlier indicating that all of the apples had been dried so they wouldn’t spoil.

Jo Jordan, Caroline Price and Britny Horton survive a round of rapids in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The biggest weakness in the show, from my perspective, was that the specific relationships between the two sets of brothers in the show (Jordan’s Seneca and Britny Horton’s O.G., along with Meyers’ Old Shady and Jessica Link as Powell) seemed no closer than any of the other one-on-one relationships among the characters. Even that made me think, though, about the differences between sibling bonds in women and in men, in the 21st century and in the 19th. What I perceived as lack may well have been accuracy (though it was still distracting).

Overall, the few misses in Riverside’s Men on Boats serve largely to highlight the hits. This is a show that we are lucky to see produced here in Iowa City, with a cast at the top of their game. Men on Boats is more than a thinkpiece, more than a comedy, more than a history, more than its symphonic use of movement and chorus. It lives in the liminal space that hovers above and connects all forms of theater. Make time to see it.

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