Western Civilization classes are filled with the perilous and thrilling tales of adventurers set out to discover uncharted territory. With notable exceptions, these explorers have all been men. Jaclyn Backhaus capsizes that reality in her play Men on Boats (at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through Dec. 16). Major John Wesley Powell and the nine men who accompanied him on a Colorado River expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869 are all played by women. Reversing gender might seem like stunt casting or a drag performance en masse. But having women play traditionally male roles drums up a fresh perspective on the familiar tropes of an adventure story.
The casting also destabilizes our expectations. As Powell, the leader of the expedition, Liz Sklar’s angular frame is hidden inside an oversized soldier’s coat. She isn’t exactly a physical match to the extant photographs of Powell, who appears as a one-armed, mutton-chopped soldier. Nor does she bluster or overcompensate for the disparity with her voice. Sklar may be bringing her vocal register down a notch but she really builds Powell up in her straight-backed posture. She isn’t imitating a man but, rather, how a man straddles the earth and unapologetically takes up space on the planet. Her fine-boned features bear the weight of male privilege. It’s funny and heartening to watch, and as with the rest of the performances, the novelty of the gambit doesn’t wear off.
Backhaus’ wit and wordplay also inform the overarching droll tone. When Powell sees the canyon walls for the first time, he exclaims, “It’s … [beat] grand.” The playwright draws a great deal of humor by pointing out what odd things men have been known to do. Powell has promised William Dunn (Sarita Ocón) that he can name a mountain peak after himself if the circumstances meet an arbitrary list of rules. Dunn sees the top of the mountain first, takes out a notebook, and voila, Dunn Peak is his (it’s still on the map near Telluride). Backhaus calls out their bad behavior, such as disregarding the territorial rights of indigenous peoples, but does so by including the absurd, puzzling habits that men make up and then affirm as truths.
But Men on Boats isn’t heavy-handed with its gibes and political asides. The playwright is interested in who these foolhardy men were and the reasons why each one chose to participate. She humanizes each loosely drawn character by carefully sketching in some funky or jagged edges. Powell’s brother William, who goes by Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), is often lost in thought, still processing the traumas he endured during the Civil War. And then suddenly, Old Shady will start singing, making up peculiar ditties that wouldn’t be out of place in the They Might Be Giants catalog. Rajala’s conception of the man is wonderfully off-kilter, especially when she steps out of an abstract trance into song.
Men on Boats doesn’t solely rely on comic interludes and tangents. The cast of ten is on stage together for most of the show. They harmonize their spoken lines like members of a church choir. Tamilla Woodard, the director, not only orchestrated the timing of their overlapping dialogue, she gave them a reason to believe in the words Backhaus has written. The actors also mime rowing along the river with invisible oars and inventive props that suggest boats. They wear them affixed to their waists like nautical hoop skirts. The play slips between genres by incorporating modern dance choreography. In order to simulate river rafting, the explorers had to synchronize their movements while imagining fast-approaching rapids, currents or whirlpools. At times, Men on Boats felt like a water ballet made by swaggering, cheerfully drunken pirates — but, obviously, without the need for actual water or a storyline that required actual men.
Men on Boats, through Dec. 16, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.