The show is titled “Men on Boats,” but no men are in the cast.
That’s the deliberate choice of playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, and the way the show will be presented at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City from Friday (7/5) to July 28.
Written at the same time as “Hamilton,” both playwrights are telling a story “with people who would never have the opportunity to have this adventure,” said guest director Angie Toomsen. “They’re reclaiming an adventure for others to experience.”
It’s a retelling, with liberties, based on John Wesley Powell’s chronicle of 10 men in four boats exploring and mapping the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in 1869, as the nation continues its westward expansion into uncharted territory. Adventure runs high all along the way, with the crew dodging rapids, losing part of their provisions and even some of their boats.
The dynamics run high among the disparate band of hunters, soldiers, map makers and adventurers, all of whom have signed on for different reasons. Tensions mount and dissent grows, and when the men challenge Powell’s authority, he’s forced to remind them of their mission and inspire them to keep going.
“The stakes get so high from a survivalist standpoint,” Toomsen said. “We get to see them dig down and find their new reason for moving forward.”
Some passages are true to life, leaping directly from Powell’s journal. But playwright Backhaus also has taken “incredible liberties” in other aspects, Toomsen said, sometimes “assigning attributes or back stories from one real-life person to another.”
“She’s created a world that is an alternate reality from the actual historical account,” Toomsen added. “You’ll learn some really interesting things you may not have known about the first sanctioned expedition of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, but it’s also not 100 percent historically accurate.”
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A theatrical journey of this magnitude not only stretches the actors, but the designers tasked with springing raging river rapids and boats onto the small footprint of Riverside’s intimate space indoors. It’s a space Toomsen enjoys working, apart from her regular position as artistic director at the much larger Theatre Cedar Rapids building.
“It’s nice to maintain a relationship and connection creatively with a theater that works in a little bit different way than we do (at TCR),” she said.
“One of the challenges and opportunities with this piece, is that it leaves everything open to the imagination of the creative team and the performers,” Toomsen said. “Every production of ‘Men on Boats’ — and it’s a very popular title right now — is doing it a little bit differently.”
The boats are the key element, she noted, and each troupe has to decide how to present them, from realistic pieces to invisible boats or a representation suggestion, Toomsen said.
Movement is an important component of what Bo Frazier, an MFA directing student at the University of Iowa, is serving as movement director. Frazier’s role is to orchestrate the action so audience members can visualize actors plunging through rapids or throwing someone a rope.
To remove the continental divide between actors and audiences, scenic designer Chris Rich is excavating part of the stage, allowing actors to walk into the audience. He’s also using various levels to create a topography unlike anything Toomsen has seen at Riverside Theatre.
“We’ve been using that as our playground,” she said.
In the end, audiences will see “a highly physical, very adrenaline-fueled show,” she said.
“It’s also extremely funny and touching and a little bit disturbing — so there’s something for everyone.”
WHAT: “Men on Boats”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre Main Stage, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (7/5) to July 28; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; no performance July 19
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TICKETS: $30 adults, $28 60 and over or 30 and under, $10 students through college; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/men-on-boats