There are no men in “Men on Boats,” a play in its opening weekend at Olympia Little Theater.
The action-packed production, about the 1869 expedition to chart the rivers of the Grand Canyon, is historically accurate, based on the journals of expedition leader John Wesley Powell.
Like megahit “Hamilton,” to which it’s been compared, “Men” changes the face of history by giving white men’s parts to those whose histories have long happened mostly off stage.
“This is such a fun, rollicking adventure story,” director Hannah Eklund told The Olympian. “Women don’t often get to play those types of characters, and that was really exciting to me.”
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Eklund isn’t the only one to use the word “rollicking” to describe the show, which garnered enthusiastic reviews in New York City, where it played Off Off Broadway in 2015 and Off Broadway in 2016.
The New York Times’ Bill Brantley summed it up as a “rollicking history pageant” populated by “fellows who are always up for shooting the rapids, the breeze and edible wildlife.”
Though the boats are represented on stage by static prows, the action includes barreling over waterfalls and narrow escapes from drowning.
“Silly? Sure. Thrilling? Oh, yes,” Time Out New York’s David Cote wrote in a review off the Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons.
All that, and it’s making a point, too. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus says it is a feminist play.
“I would like it to be identified as one, if only to piss off the six or seven old white men who walked out during the first half in this past run,” she said in a 2016 interview with Howlround. “ ‘Hey, yeah, you’re welcome! Feminist play over here. Sorry we didn’t meet your requirements! No men, no boats really.”
The script includes the following casting note: “The characters in ‘Men On Boats’ were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”
The all-female cast of the Olympia Little Theater production includes such oft-seen talents as Heather Christopher, Amy Shephard and Jesse Morrow (who plays the one-armed Powell) along with Olympia Little Theater regulars Kendra Malm and Andrea Weston-Smart (also frequently seen on stage at Olympia Family Theater).
Though they are dressed in men’s clothing appropriate to the period, the actresses aren’t hiding under fake beards or tucking long hair into a hat. “They still look feminine,” Eklund said.
“There are all sorts of ideas we have about what it means to be masculine and what it means to be feminine,” she added. “Having people that we perceive as feminine playing these swaggering men allows us to examine our own ideas about what it means to be feminine or masculine.
“Sometimes that sort of dichotomy makes us laugh, and sometimes it makes us realize that maybe there are beliefs we’ve held onto that aren’t quite as true as we thought they were.”
‘Men on Boats’
- What: Olympia Little Theatre presents Jaclyn Backhaus’s 2015 play about the 19th-century explorers charting rivers in the Grand Canyon.
- When: 7:25 p.m. Friday and Saturday plus Feb. 7-9 and 16 and 1:55 p.m. Sunday plus Feb. 10 and 17
- Where: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave NE, Olympia
- Tickets: $9-$15
- More information: 360-786-9484, olympialittletheater.org
- Learn more: Backhaus talks about the play at youtube.com/watch?v=nOdbpG4J9eI.