If other organizations at the University of Connecticut have balked at the prospect of adapting their events to continue on in a pandemic environment, the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) has come out the door swinging with their first show of the 2021-21 season, “Men on Boats.” The question then becomes whether or not the approach they took was a success and what that means for stage performances moving forward.
“Men on Boats” adapts the true story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Colorado River and Grand Canyon (then just known as the “Big Canyon”). During their arduous journey, Powell and his company of nine face deadly obstacles and fierce internal struggles that threaten to tear the group apart. Despite losing supplies, food and even members along the way, the expedition is finally brought to fulfillment thanks to the optimism and determination of Powell, though the audience is left to consider at what cost.
The first thing that will probably catch your eye as you read the cast list is that, despite the characters all being men, there is not a single man to be found. Like an inverted Shakespeare play, all of the male roles have been filled by women. This isn’t the first time that CRT has used gender-bent casting, but in the past this practice has been restricted to select roles. A staple of the show since its premiere five years ago, director Beth Gardiner described the choice as a method to highlight perspectives that would not have been included in this history.
“The president wouldn’t have asked them [women] to go do an expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers,” Gardiner explained when discussing the use of gender-bending and contemporary dialogue. “It keeps us from getting too sucked into a false sense of authentic historical truth- because what does that even mean. A lot of the questions of this play have to do with, […] what other layers were there to this story.”
The second thing you’ll notice once the play begins is that you’re not at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre (or the smaller Studio Theatre, as is often the case with female-driven shows at UConn), but instead, you’re sitting at home watching on your laptop. That’s because the show is presented virtually through Zoom. Each actor delivers a live performance from a separate location, meaning there are no physical interactions between anyone in the show. Actors appear as boxes (usually showing only head and shoulders) which are organized on a background in accordance with the requirements of each scene. For example, if there are three characters meant to be in a canoe, their boxes will be lined up to simulate the effect. If the entire cast is sitting around a campfire, all the boxes will be arranged in a circular pattern throughout the screen.
As a consequence of this style, actors are further limited by a lack of space, sets and props. This leads to what I can only imagine is unintentional hilarity as performers have to mime basic actions like rowing, carrying their canoes, climbing rocks, throwing and catching ropes and my personal favorite, staying afloat after capsizing. That means that there are neither any men nor boats in a show which is called, let me remind you, “Men on Boats.”
While that may sound like a criticism, I was actually very impressed by the creativity it took to pull this off. Being under such extreme limitations placed increased pressure on everyone involved to present a show that was still engaging and straightforward.
As usual, the entire cast did a very fine job with what they were given. Having an ensemble cast of ten people meant that certain characters were given greater focus and development than others, though each actor was able to make an impression. Standouts were Alex Campbell in the lead role as John Wesley Powell, Lily Ling as the bubbly young blabbermouth Hawkins and GraceAnn Brooks as the posh British adventurer Frank Goodman. The quality of the performances was all the more impressive when you remember that not only were they completely alone and separate, but they also had to remember where fellow actors would be placed in relation to them on the Zoom presentation.
While minimal, the sound design also helped to add immersion. The sounds of rushing rapids and churning waterfalls did quite a bit to sell the atmosphere of the Colorado River. The usage of silent film style title cards between scenes was a clever way to prepare the audience for changes in location and quickly set up a new layout for the actors’ screens. The costumes by Xurui Wang, Ray Dondero and Zhiyan Liualso not only added a certain degree of period authenticity, but also gave each actor a unique appearance and characterization.
Strangely enough, the biggest disappointment I had with the show was the script by Jaclyn Backhaus. Structurally, the story felt meandering and slow. Many scenes were overly repetitive, especially those involving the titular boats. At times, the play felt directionless with no end goal in sight. Obviously the characters were seeking to find the end of the canyon, but the stakes never appeared to be of particular importance, culminating in a deeply anticlimactic ending.
In a surprisingly meta scene, Powell and his comrades complete their journey, but instead of receiving a hero’s welcome or some sort of commendation, they are faced with the reality that most of them will be forgotten in obscurity and there was no greater meaning to their accomplishment. There are a few possible interpretations for this ending I can think of, but it still leaves me questioning why Backhaus would structure the show in such an odd way or why she would even choose such a relatively obscure piece of history to adapt.
All things considered, while the play itself is not one of the better pieces I’ve seen the CRT choose and the difficulties of this format are hard to ignore, it is undeniable that the cast, crew and director took what could have easily been a lackluster stage show or a disastrous virtual mess and turned out the best finished product they could. The performances are strong, the presentation is surprisingly easy to follow and there were very few glitches with the exception of a slight lag between audio and video, which is to be expected. I’m not sure what else they could have possibly done to present a better show than what was achieved (perhaps “Waiting for Godot to join the Zoom call” or maybe “12 Angry yet socially distanced Men”). In all seriousness, all the elements came together as well as could be done and there was definite enjoyment to be had. I wish everyone involved with this production the best of luck on all future performances and I hope that they go as smoothly as their opening night.
“Men on Boats” will continue to run from Wednesday the 14th through Sunday the 18th. Tickets can be found on the Connecticut Repertory Theatre website.