Thursday, February 10, 2022

'Men on Boats' tells true story with no men, no boats

The cast of Palo Alto Players' production of 'Men on Boats' (Photo by Scott Lasky)

 “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus is based on the true story of the first known white men to chart the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

Presented by Palo Alto Players and, as stipulated by the playwright, it has no men and no boats. Instead it has 10 female and nonbinary actors.

Authorized by President Grant, the expedition was led by the one-armed John Wesley Powell (the stalwart Mary Melnick), who chronicled the expedition in his journal. The play incorporates passages from that journal.

Starting in four boats, the team was an assortment of men from varied backgrounds.

Several had specific tasks. For example, William Dunn (Melissa Jones) was Powell’s second in command, Hall (Jaime Wolf) was the mapmaker, and Hawkins (Katie O’Bryon Champlin) was the cook.

The most enigmatic but fascinating crew member was Old Shady (Maria Mikheyenko). She also composed and arranged the songs that she and the cast sing at various points.

Their perilous journey took these adventurers through dangerous rapids and waterfalls. Along the way, boats capsized and supplies were lost

.By the time they had reached the end of the canyon, four of the men had left and the rest had nothing more to eat than one apple that wasn’t mealy.

Directed by Lee Ann Payne who also serves as music curator, the cast is energetic, but the play itself is somewhat repetitious,

Moreover, the actors try too hard to be masculine, and they often shout, making their lines difficult to understand.

The rugged sandstone set is by Heather Kenyon with effective lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by James Goode. The period costumes are by Y. Sharon Peng.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Men on Boats” will continue at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, through Feb. 20. Streaming on demand is scheduled for Feb. 17-20.

For tickets and more information, including COVID policies, call (650) 329-0891 or visit