Theatre Review: ‘Men on Boats’ by UB Theatre and Dance at The Center For The Arts

Modern takes on historical events are one of my favorite approaches to storytelling. Writing about an exploration that took place in 1869 for a 21st century audience can be tricky, I was expecting something corny like the classroom plays my American history class used to present back in middle school. I should have known better, the department of theatre and dance at University of Buffalo always exceeds my expectations.

. . .exciting and comical. . .

“Men on Boats” chronicles the expeditions of John Wesley Powell and his group of selected men investigating and documenting the Green River and the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Reading the program, the casting for this seemingly predictable show has already flipped the narrative on its head by replacing the men with an entire female cast. Each woman portrays their male figures, but it adds hilarity and quirkiness when the actors low voices suddenly raise in high pitch screaming, shouting, or brief singing.

Jaclyn Blackhaus’ script stays true to the adventure Powell and his crew embarked on, including the men who left the party, the hidden barrel of whiskey upon the wrecked No Name, to the tiny details such as the often forgotten moment of when Powell was near death, dangling from a rock ledge, saved by Andy Hall taking off his pants and using them to pull Powell to safety. Though the historical accuracy is impressive, it’s the satirical and tongue-in-cheek moments that make this story stand out and stay with you long after the show is over.

The entire cast was phenomenal, each woman embracing her character and making them unique and memorable. By the time the play is over, it’s hard to not empathize with these men, and the struggles they went through (no matter how parodied the situations were at times). Julia Krieter commands the stage as Powell, speaking the loudest among the men, strutting with an exaggerated confidence, but still caring for each member of the exploration crew, especially as their numbers dwindle. Perhaps my favorite though was Michaela Pace playing Old Shady (Powell’s brother). The quietest member of the group, Shady would often break a silence with odd humming, confuse everyone with sudden singing, or spook the group with a harmless trick, all while completely deadpan and unconcerned.

Director Eero Laine presents “Men on Boats” as an exciting and comical rehash that also provides commentary on how history is retold and interpreted. Even if you are unfamiliar with Powell’s geographic exploration, I highly recommend this show for the talent and creativity the cast and crew exudes.

Running time: 1 hour with no intermission.

“Men on Boats” runs until Sunday October 29, 2017 and is presented at The Center For The Arts at the University at Buffalo. For tickets and more information, click here.