Riverside Theater brings a historical river expedition to the stage in ‘Men on Boats’

Go for a thrilling ride down the Colorado River with ‘Men on Boats,’ a play showing at Riverside Theater through July 28.

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Riverside Theater brings a historical river expedition to the stage in ‘Men on Boats’

Bradley (Lauren Galliart), Old Shady (Karle Meyers), and Seneca (Jo Jordan) navigate rough waters aboard the Kitty Clyde’s Sister during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Bradley (Lauren Galliart), Old Shady (Karle Meyers), and Seneca (Jo Jordan) navigate rough waters aboard the Kitty Clyde’s Sister during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Emily Wangen

Bradley (Lauren Galliart), Old Shady (Karle Meyers), and Seneca (Jo Jordan) navigate rough waters aboard the Kitty Clyde’s Sister during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Emily Wangen

Emily Wangen

Bradley (Lauren Galliart), Old Shady (Karle Meyers), and Seneca (Jo Jordan) navigate rough waters aboard the Kitty Clyde’s Sister during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Lauren Arzbaecher, Arts Reporter

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Going over a waterfall in a rowboat. Trying not to fall to one’s death off a cliff. Fighting off a rattlesnake with a coffee pot. All this adventure and more can be found in Men on Boats, a production being performed at the Riverside Theater through July 28.

Written by Jaclyn Backhaus, the play follows the 1869 journey of John Wesley Powell and a group of explorers in their expedition to survey the country along the Colorado River and the then unknown (by white settlers) Grand Canyon. Backhaus drew information for the play from Powell’s meticulous journals of the expedition, which were later collected into the book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons in 1895.

The play is set soon after the Civil War and examines many themes central to the American experience. Explorers set out to see the wonders of the natural world but encounter obstacles in nature, among each other, and with the native population, who already inhabited the land. Adam Knight, the producing artistic director at Riverside, said the show looks at history through an entirely new lens.

“Part of the American mythos is the idea of discovery, and it plays into a lot of our history, for good and for bad,” Knight said. “This play embraces that dichotomy. It embraces the contradiction of what makes America America.”

Emily Wangen
Bradley (Lauren Galliart) and Powell (Jessica Link) spot other explorers from their party from a cliff during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Full of excitement and grit, characters face extreme obstacles and grapple with doubts around exploration into the unknown. Putting a river and the Grand Canyon on stage is a nearly impossible task, which led the show to use various theatrical techniques to portray a similar sense of grandeur. Jessica Link, who portrays Powell in the production, said the show was quite physical.

“We did some days where we just worked on movement,” she said. “We worked all of the scenes where they are actually in the boats, on the river, truly traversing this waterway and these canyons. It’s the most physical play I think I’ve ever done, and we’ve all got the bruises and badges of honor to show it.”

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Obscured by the title of the play, one of the production’s most striking aspects is that the cast entirely comprises individuals who are, in fact, not men. The casting choice is embedded in the fabric of Men on Boats, Backhaus decided the casting at the show’s inception.

“The cast is made up of 10 individuals who are either female-identifying or nonbinary,” Link said. “It’s really fantastic to be able to step into the world as a man sees it and play it that way without pretending to be a man, because we are not doing that. We are embodying the spirit of these men on this incredible journey that women were not allowed to take at the time.”

Emily Wangen
Bradley (Lauren Galliart) and Old Shady (Karle Meyers) travel aboard the Kitty Clyde’s Sister during the final dress rehearsal of Men on Boats on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at the Riverside Theatre. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Undergoing a show that reinvents how one looks at history has an effect not only on the cast but on the audience as well.

“While I was initially uninterested by the title, when the play presented a historical retelling with men entirely absent from said boats, I was intrigued,” said University of Iowa senior Sarah Poultney. “This is just one part of a play that used its casting, lovable characters, and witty quips to deliver a fun experience, which also acknowledged the hilariously depressing pointlessness of the men’s trek down the river.”

A truly engaging production, Men on Boats transports the audience back in time while simultaneously putting a modern spin on a tale that explores the possibilities of the human spirit.