The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

UMW Theatre performs “Men on Boats,” a play about the Colorado River exploration of 1869

4 min read

Actors pantomimed the boats. | Photo courtesy of Geoff Greene


Life Editor

UMW Theatre is back at it with another performance. This time, the show is “Men on Boats,” which was written by Jaclyn Backhaus and follows the tale of John Wesley Powell and the nine other men who explored and charted the Colorado River in 1869. 

Much like the river itself, the play takes many twists and turns that lead to a change in the original plans. From four of Powell’s men quitting and deciding to join a Mormon camp to other disasters along the way, the number of explorers dwindles down throughout the show.

One of the show’s strengths was that the cast consisted of all non-male actors portraying male characters. This intentional casting decision was successful in mocking the idea of male colonialism, and anecdotes and sarcastic jokes captured the struggle that indigenous people faced during this period.

As audience members walked in before the show began, a wash of blue light flooded the stage. On the stage, creating a background for the scenes, were ropes and paddles hung vertically from above, through which actors would walk during the show. Yes, paddles—not oars. Paddles and oars are separate boating equipment, with paddles being free-standing and oars being connected to the boat. And though paddles were used as props, the script kept referring to the paddles as oars. Though this may seem like a small gripe, this distinction should have been noted in a play centered around boats.

When the show was about to start, the room went dark, thus beginning the expedition.

To set the scene: There was one large rock on either side of the stage that seemed to be recreating the Grand Canyon as the expeditioners were traversing the Colorado River. However, the rock on the left appeared to be slightly too far center stage so that when the rock was rotated as the expeditioners exited the Grand Canyon, the back of the set piece was exposed to the audience, ruining the illusion. Additionally, set up on the stage were four incomplete boats, consisting of only the front parts of each one. While the front crew member appeared to be inside the boat, the others were squatting behind on various barrels and boxes. This led to the other crew members pantomiming the back end of the boat when carrying or falling out of it, but their performances were neither convincing nor consistent.  

One key feature of the show was the constant theme of teamwork. Throughout the show, the actors shouted out directions and instructions together to guide the journey. While these shouts were meant to communicate one of the many underlying themes of the show, at many times the actors were so loud that other audience members had to cover their ears. 

Other than that, the sound quality of the show was wonderful, especially when Old Shady—one of the crew members who was played by senior Shannon McGowan—serenaded the other explorers around the campfire. 

Another element was when all of the explorers took bites from apples onstage. The entire audience, even if they were farther back in the theater, could hear the crisp crunch. 

The show had no intermission and ran for 90 minutes straight. Although this sounds like a long time, it truly flew by as the audience got more and more involved in the show. When asked about the lack of intermission, Emma Lehman, a sophomore theatre major who plays John Colton Sumner, discussed the complications of the show having no break for the actors.

“It’s a little scary because, at least for me, I know I don’t have time to go downstairs if I realize I forgot something,” Lehman said. “On the other hand, not having a break makes it easier to stay in character and remember the arc and build of the story when performing.” 

Although there were aspects of the show that highlighted stylistic thought and attention, the show didn’t seem to have a solid climax. Perhaps it was the topic at hand, or maybe it was working around set limitations—building an entire boat would send anyone overboard—but in general, the play came across as a historical fiction tale with a slew of rising and falling actions rather than a riveting tale with strong commentary and recurring motifs. 

When asked about any aspects of the show that could have been improved upon, Properties Designer Isabelle Withers, a senior theatre major, talked about the production’s design elements. 

“I do wish that we were able to do more visually to represent the rapids/water during the boating scenes, but while considering the size of our space and the time that we had to develop our ideas and put them onstage, I think that what we were able to achieve with just the actors and their boats was very eye-catching and entertaining,” said Withers. 

When asked why people should see the show, Hannah Chester, a senior theatre and communication and digital studies double major who played John Wesley Powell, said, “It’s lovely, funny, and an exposé on the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.”

“Men on Boats” will continue at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 16–18 and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 12 in Klein Theatre. Tickets are $20 for students and $25 for standard admission.  

Due to editor error, the previous headline of this article incorrectly stated that the Colorado River exploration happened in 1989. It happened in 1869. This has been corrected.