Mullen Center Presents ‘Men on Boats”


Courtesy of Villanova Theatre

“Men on Boats” shows at the Mullen Center through Oct. 2.

Catherine Gunther, Staff Writer

On Sept. 22, the cast and crew of “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus brought the audience from the Court Theatre at the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts to the Canyon of the Colorado River in 1869. This fast-paced story follows the historic government sanctioned voyage of Major John Powell and nine crew members through what is now called the Grand Canyon. Despite the title, each voyager is represented by a non-male actor establishing as soon as the lights go down that this play is not meant to serve as a factual account of events, but rather as a provocative interpretation within a historical context. Each actor brought to life a uniquely eccentric character. The balancing of 10 personalities, which become more exposed with each setback, provides an opportunity to raise questions regarding human nature. Each actor had their work cut out for them, balancing modern vernacular with the adoption of a quirky persona.  


The cast of caricatures draw in the audience literally, as those in the front row are engaged from their seats. Director Kristy Dodson has an extensive background in acrobatic performance. This experience makes them uniquely positioned to direct a show which requires significant use of movement and physical cues to communicate plot and setting to the audience. This, along with the dynamic staging and lively dialogue, serve to both celebrate adventure and bravery, while also calling the accuracy of the events into question and exposing the raw humanness of the historical figures it follows. These aspects help convey the emotions and hunger of the explorers portrayed. And though the source of the events is expedition leader John Wesley Powell’s personal journal – a possibly less than exact account – the emotions and trials described appeal to the realities of hope, pride and the desire for legacy.


         The show utilizes an interesting balance of comedy and drama as it aims to address major social issues and movements of the 21st century. The dialogue addresses issues of ableism, racism and colonialism and the ways the American government fails its citizens, especially the most vulnerable.


         “Men on Boats” especially emphasizes the context of the geological expedition, which claimed to be the first to successfully navigate the canyon while acknowledging that the Native people living in surrounding lands had been navigating these waters for many years prior. With a clear distinction that the expedition is not in fact what it claims to be, the audience is asked to consider the motivation for a mission which is founded on a falsehood.


         One student commented that the show was “goofy,” and it is this use of comedy and modern language which brings the story to modern relevance. The audience is encouraged to find entertainment in conjunction with social commentary, sometimes through a direct address of political and social issues.



         The costumes in “Men on Boats” play a pivotal role in highlighting each character’s personality, role and most significantly, the loss experienced throughout. Janus Stefanowicz and her team expertly styled the players, making their clothing functional, historically accurate and, most importantly, unconcerned with hiding the gender identities of the cast.