ONSTAGE The first thing you notice about Men on Boats at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater (through December 16) is that there are no men and there are no boats.

Well, I take that back. A slapdash concoction of wood slats and chairs depicts boats. And a full complement of women actors on stage announce themselves as the male explorers of the Colorado River.

Within minutes—thanks to the vibrant acting and expressive agility of the cast—you believe that these actors are men and these sticks of furniture are boats.

And that is just the beginning of the suspension of disbelief. The play, directed by Tamilla Woodard, is a raucous, rollicking journey through treacherous whitewater rapids in search of a canyon that turns out to be truly grand.

Jaclyn Backhaus’s imaginative retelling of the story of the 1869 expedition of the one-armed Civil War officer John Wesley Powell (Liz Sklar) is based on his actual journals. Ten local women actors portray his motley crew of trackers, trappers, mappers, teenage war veterans, and adventurers. Backhaus’s script requires that the cast be “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid and/or non-gender conforming.” Director Woodard notes, “In a story about white guys conquering the Grand Canyon, this may feel a bit disorienting, but it allows us to see something differently.”

Woodard’s direction is brilliant. With the collaboration of movement coach Danyon Davis, the troupe is choreographed with the complexity of a ballet, the humor of vaudeville slapstick and the breathtaking tension of high-wire acrobats.

Lisa Hori-Garcia and Lauren Spencer, engaging as the rough Howland brothers, Seneca and O.G., are especially intriguing when they double as the Ute tribal leaders, Chief Tsauwiat and his wife The Bishop, whom the famished white explorers must turn to for food. Amy Lizardo as Hawkins, the expedition’s cook, battles a rattlesnake with powerful ferocity, her last hope for dinner. Annemaria Rajala’s Old Shady, Major Powell’s brother and fellow veteran, portrays Civil War-era PTSD, drifting into nonsense songs that are both melancholy and moving.

The crew of the Emma Dean gets tossed overboard after their boat becomes wedged between two rocks and capsizes forcing the other expeditioners to come to their rescue in Men on Boats. Photo by Kevin Berne

Men on Boats is physical comedy at its best: against a stylized map of the newly charted Colorado River region, we are right there with the actors when they are hanging off the edge of a cliff, spinning out of control in a whirlpool, or literally facing off in a dispute about rations of tobacco.

When the rickety boats headed down a steep waterfall, I found myself gripping the sides of the theater seat, white-knuckled. But mapmaker Hall’s (Rosie Hallett) absolute joy at the precipitous descent was contagious. I was thrilled to be on the journey with this eccentric, endearing crew – and so will you. It’s a great ride. 

MEN ON BOATS
through December 16
A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
More info here