Those lacking the irony gene had best steer clear of “Men on Boats,” a comedy/drama that employs an all-woman cast to re-enact a macho-heavy moment of historic Americana.
On one level Jaclyn Backhaus’ play offers a more-or-less authentic narrative of the 1869 Powell expedition down the treacherous Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
On another level it’s a fierce satire of male behavior and privilege.
And throughout it’s a broad comedy in which 19th-century eloquence coexists with modern colloquialisms.
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Directed with verve and sly subversiveness by Missy Koonce, this Unicorn Theatre production (co-produced by the UMKC Department of Theatre) benefits from several terrific performances and wildly imaginative staging.
Perhaps there is less here than meets the eye ... but what meets the eye is pretty great.
For example...how does one re-create a dangerous river journey on stage? In this case designer Kelli Harrod has built four boats which the characters lift, drop and shake to simulate their passage through rapids and over waterfalls. The choreography of these “action” sequences is so effective that with a little imagination you can feel the spray against your face.
And then there are the inherent incongruities of having women play rugged frontiersmen. Every now and then a character will assume a heroic pose (as if waiting for a sculptor to make sketches), only to have that manly presentation undermined by a distinctly feminine gesture.
These “guys” haggle over naming rights for landmarks passed on the journey (they actually have codified a set of rules for when you can name a mountain after yourself). They practically salivate whenever someone mentions the word “bacon.” Or “whiskey.”
Among the 10-woman cast there are several standout performances. As John Wesley Powell, Vanessa Severo combines outbursts of pure ego with a sort of cardboard heroism. She’s got a remarkable bit of physical comedy in which the one-armed expedition leader finds himself hanging on for dear life to a near-vertical canyon wall.
Carla Noack is both captivating and creepy as Powell’s older brother, Old Shady, so named for his boyhood habit of imitating a tree for hours on end. Old Shady says little (it’s hard to talk with a straw permanently protruding from his kisser) but he can be counted on to break into a patriotic anthem or nonsensical folk song at exactly the wrong moment.
Jessica Kincaid, outfitted in coonskin cap, plays Dunn, the expedition’s hunter and, ultimately, Powell’s rival for control of the expedition.
And my favorite two characters are the brothers O.G. and Seneca Howland (Chioma Anyanwu and Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo), a surly pair who don’t try to hide their eye-rolling contempt for Powell’s leadership. Anyanwu and Bedejo have been double cast as a couple of Native Americans who view the white intruders with a hilarious blend of weariness and contempt.
The cast is rounded out by Yetunde Felix-Ukwu, Emilie Lela Karas, Megan Sells, Katie Gilchrist and Marianne McKenzie.
By the time “Men on Boats” reaches its conclusion, you feel you’ve actually shared a great adventure. The play leaves us simultaneously wondering at human heroism and howling at male overkill. It’s hard to think of another show even remotely like it.
“Men on Boats” continues at the Unicorn Theatre through Oct. 1. See unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.