Men On Boats, by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Patrick White. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
(L-R) Sara Paupini, Victoria Vine, Maghen Ryan, Susan Katz, Laura Darling, Cori Irwin, Debra Bercier, Iris Singer; photo: Patrick White
"We won't know its the right choice until we make it."
(Top-Bottom) Jeanette Horowitz, Sara Paupini & Laura Darling; photo: Patrick White
Famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first official U.S. government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell served as second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed, for development of the arid West, policies that were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He became the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution during his service as director of the U.S. Geological Survey,where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications. He had only one arm, having lost his left arm at the Battle of Shiloh in 1861, but he was still an intrepid cartographer.
Gathering nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, he set out from Green River, Wyoming, on May 24. Passing through dangerous rapids, the group passed down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River (then also known as the Grand River upriver from the junction), near present-day Moab, Utah, and completed the journey on August 30, 1869. Jacklyn Backhaus's play, MEN ON BOATS, now on stage at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, celebrates that exploratory voyage in an all female cast, produced by Acting Class With Patrick White, their first-ever presentation.
One section of this play takes the members of the expedition down a series of dangerous waterfalls, a beautiful physical exploration of stagecraft that shifts the positions of the "men" who truly bring us the effect of rapids and water movement and the impact of returning to churning, flatbed river water. In the eighty-eight minute one-act play this is just one of the sensational effects that director Patrick White achieves thanks to a very talented company of actors.
John Wesley Powell, trip organizer and leader, major in the Civil War is played by Cori Irwin; John Colton "Jack" Sumner, hunter, trapper, soldier in the Civil War is played by Iris Singer; William H. Dunn, hunter, trapper from Colorado is played by Debra Bercier; Walter H. Powell, captain in the Civil War known as Old Shady is played by Susan Katz; George Y. Bradley, lieutenant in the Civil War, expedition chronicler, is played by Maghen Ryan; Oramel G. Howland, printer, editor, hunter is played by Sara Paupini; Seneca Howland, his brother, is played by Victoria Vine; Frank Goodman, Englishman, adventurer is played by Susan Dantz; W. R. Hawkins, cook, soldier in Civil War is played by Laura Darling; Andrew Hall, Scotsman, the youngest of the expedition is played by Jeanette Horowitz; The Bishop, an Indian sage, is played by Mary N. Williams; Tsauwmat and Mr. Asa are played by Myrna Bernstein.
(L-R) Cori Irwin, Susan Katz, Maghen Ryan; photo: Patrick White
Chad Reid's sound effects and filmic musical accompaniment tended to be a bit loud on opening night, sometimes drowning out the actors voices, but certainly providing an element of watery effusion. In particular Cori Irwin's voice was often drowned by the expedition's most essential aspect. She gave a definite dignity to the character of Powell, providing a constantly inspiring sensibility to his vision and command of the voyage.
As his younger brother, Susan Katz delivered nicely in Shady's consistent support of Powell's decisions and drive in the mission. Jeanete Horowitz as the team's youngest member delivered all the sweetness of the expectations of youth and near the end of the play exulted with glee at their success.
Among the best moments of the evening was the scene with the two Indians who advised the travelers on their future and provided help in revivifying their food supplies. Mary N. Williams, in particular, delivered a serious sense of joy in her performance as the sage. Myrna Bernstein's opposite and serious brave was a nice touch, and her later appearance as the government agent who greets the expedition on their arrival at their destination was just as good, if not better.
(L-R) Iris Singer, Debra Bercier; photo: Patrick White
Key to the drama in this play was William Dunn, who assisted Powell in all things until he decided to abandon the team, taking with him the Howland Brothers, O.G. and Seneca. Dunn was delivered to this audience by Debra Bercier who was the most convincing actor in the production. Her performance is dark and strong and wonderfully representative of the 19th century western man. I cannot imagine this role played better than Bercier gives us.
Iris Singer as the sane, sound voice of Sumner, did a fine job. The Howlands, Sara Paupini as O.G. and Victoria Vine as Seneca, were excellent as well. Susan Dantz as the Englishman who abandons the team after one too many near-disasters gave a fine performance in the role, her accent clean and deliberate and her emotional responses clear as day.
The costumes, uncredited in the program, helped to define the characters and even the one feminine piece of apparel didn't distract from the character's male identity. Barry Streifert's lighting design helped to give a true sense of the isolation and mystery this company survived on those rivers so very long ago. In a show about discovering what isn't known, the company under the superb direction of Patrick White, opens our minds in many, many ways. There is no way I would undertake this voyage with any company of men other than the ones on stage in Sand Lake, New York.
Men On Boats plays at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 NY Route 43 in Averill Park, NY through September 23. For information and tickets go to www.slca-ctp.org or call 518-674-2007.