You’ve never met a crew like this one. In the late middle 1800s, ten men begin an exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Come join in their adventures and shenanigans in Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
This script is certainly. . .different. It actually centers around an interesting concept by taking the real life explorations of ten white men and shaking it up with the conceit of all of the characters being played by a diverse group of women. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite measure up to the concept as the story lacks a needed centrality and the characters are not given any arcs. There are a few howlingly funny moments, but, on the whole, the script felt more like a rough draft than a fully polished work. Luckily, the efforts and skill of a mighty cast combined with some skillful direction help to make the most out of this show.
Amy Lane’s direction expertly navigates the peculiarities of this story. The play flies back and forth between period language and considerably more modern vernacular and behaviors which gives the play a real/unreal feeling and playing the truth of that dichotomy is an exceptional challenge. Ms Lane manages to play that duality by knowing when to go over the top and when to be a bit grounded. She also has a firm understanding of the interrelationships of these characters and that understanding leads her cast to form the powerful bonds needed to make this show fly.
Some rather entertaining performances are given by Breanna Carodine as a plucky, exuberant Union Army lieutenant who’s happy to serve and by Yone Edegbele and Esther Aruguete who have a shining moment as a pair of snarky Utes who provide food and transportation to the explorers after some of their harrowing adventures.
Teri Fender leads the crew as Major John Wesley Powell. Ms Fender’s Powell is unflappable in the face of certain danger, pontificates like Captain Kirk, and has a sanity be damned personality. Indeed, his willingness to jump into the arms of certain death with a smile and a maniacal gleam in his eyes makes one wonder if his sanity is just as absent as his right arm.
Daena Schweiger owns this show with her rendition of Old Shady, the brother of Major Powell, and she does it with nary a word of dialogue. She was the most convincing man of the lot, utilizing a stooped posture which gave her movements more of a masculine feel and a sandpapery, guttural voice on her rare occasions of speaking helped to complete the illusion. Ms Schweiger gets the show’s best moment when she launches into an impromptu song about Old Shady’s fish dinner which had audience members practically falling out of their chairs.
Allexys Johnson’s rendition of William Dunn serves as a fine counterbalance to the possibly crazed leader. Ms Johnson’s Dunn is the most level-headed member of the group who coolly analyzes situations and takes more calculated risks in an attempt to get this team through this expedition alive. Her yang melds well with Ms Fender’s yin to really make the debates and arguments of their characters spark and pop.
Jim Othuse’s set services the show well with a literally mapped floor and the high, towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains. John Gibilisco’s sounds ably support the production with the blast of shotguns, the creepy rattling of a rattlesnake, and the thunderous run of the water of a raging river. Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are period appropriate with the Civil War military garb of the soldiers, the coonskin caps and buckskins of the frontiersmen and hunters, the pith helmet and proper exploratory garments of Goodman, the expedition’s British member, and the southwestern, cowboyesque clothes of the remaining team members.
The first act was hampered a bit by lack of volume and some mushy diction, but the cast mostly rectified this in Act II.
While the story may be a bit lacking, this talented troupe of performers does provide a fine night of characterizations and their zany antics will give audience members quite a bit of amusement.
Men on Boats plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 26. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $30 for adults and $18 for students with prices varying by performance and seating zone. Tickets may be purchased at OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com. Due to strong language, the show is recommended for mature audiences. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.