BWW Review: MEN ON BOATS at Unicorn Theatre
Kicking off the Unicorn Theatre's 44th season is "Men on Boats" by Jaclyn Bauhaus (in cooperation with the UMKC advanced MFA program). "Men on Boats" is an interesting and mostly accurate exploration of John Wesley Powell's 1869 exploration of the Colorado River north of and into the Grand Canyon.
Bauhaus's highly stylized rendering of the Powell expedition is performed by a ten person, all female cast, but it is not an obvious political statement for gender politics or any kind of drag show. The gender of the actors is immaterial to the telling of the story and mostly forgotten as the 90 minute presentation rolls down the Colorado Rapids.
This is the wild Colorado River before the installation of the Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell (named for the expedition leader) east of the Grand Canyon. The Glen Canyon Dam mitigates water flows between the mouth of the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. Today, tourists hop onto well-provisioned, safety equipped, practiced, and guided, rubber rafts for a multiday, whitewater, thrill ride down the somewhat tamed down river.
Powell's troupe of adventurers enjoyed none of the modern safety precautions. They had limited food, a wilder river, wooden whale boats, and no idea what they would be facing day to day. Survival here became the overriding task from what had been a mapping and exploration ordered by new President Ulysses Grant.
John Wesley Powell was an intrepid geologist and Civil War veteran who had lost an arm in an early battle. Powell overcame his disability and returned to active service ending as up a Brevit Lt. Colonel. But he preferred to be referred to at his permanent rank of Major. Powell's expedition began in Wyoming and traveled down the Green and Colorado Rivers. He lost one of his boats and a quantity of his provisions around Glen Canyon before even reaching the Grand Canyon.
Powell, in this rendition of the expedition, is portrayed by the dominating presence of the excellent Vanessa Severo. Hunter William Dunn is brought to life by the very good Jessalyn Kincaid. Sumner is Yetunde Felix-Ukwu. Carla Noack is Captain Shady Powell. Brady is Emilie Leia Karas. Brothers OG and Seneca are Chioma Anyanwu and Rasheetat Badejo. 19th Century Tourist Frank Goodman is Megan Sells. Cook and quartermaster is Katie Gilchrist. And Hall is Marianne McKenzie.
This entire group is individually (and as a cast) present in the stylized moment of the journey in which they are participating. We don't care about their gender or the artifice of their theatrical surroundings. We like or appropriately dislike these characters as the people the play tells us they are. We feel the levels of disagreement between Hunter Dunn and Powell over command, the outraged concern of Quartermaster Hawkins, and the quiet strength of Captain Powell. Each of the cast members offers us a differentiated character that we can believe in. I am impressed by their intensity, unity, and occasional humor.
Director Missy Koonce has created an excellent ensemble crammed with interesting stage pictures that make the most of the limited space and Kelli Harrod's imaginative setting. This is an unusual and unexpected 90 minutes worth spending.
"Men on Boats" continues at the Unicorn Theatre through October 1. Tickets are available at the Unicorn website or by telephone at 816-531-7529.
Unicorn Photo by Cynthia Levin