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Performing Arts

Exploring the unknown: Traveling down the Colorado with Merely Players

From left: Mohriah James (John Colton Sumner), Sarah Choszczyk (John Wesley Powell), and Sharina Ramsey (William H. Dunn), rehearse a scene from Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, “Men on Boats,” which opens Friday (Oct. 1), at Merely Underground. (Courtesy of Merely Players)
Theater company opens new space with ‘Men on Boats’

Late in Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, “Men on Boats,” one crew member estimates the 1869 Powell Expedition has “a five percent chance of survival.”

Another crew member says: “We could be on the river in the Big Canyon here for another three to six weeks.”

The whole crew erupts in shock and disbelief, then expedition leader John Wesley Powell firmly says: “Those are estimates, of course. They are merely ESTIMATES!”

The remarkable play “Men on Boats” will open Merely Players’ new headquarters in the Tech Center today (Oct. 1) and run through Oct. 17. Our resident theatrical company has finally found a home and has titled it Merely Underground. With an entirely new ventilation system that is state of the art, audience members can be assured of filtered outdoor air. With health safety in mind, all company members have been vaccinated, and all attendees must wear masks. There is no intermission nor will refreshments be served. All precautions have been taken to make sure actors and audience members will be safe.

When the play opened off-Broadway in 2015, New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley called it a “rollicking history pageant.” Brantley praised the theatrical illusion of a river journey through wild Western territory, the mixture of 19th-century language and modern vernacular, and most of all creatively recasting the historic and heroic all-male crew with female actors. He added that the writing and fresh casting were neither “cute nor camp.”

If you go

WHAT: “Men on Boats: A Grand Canyon Adventure,” a play by Jaclyn Backhaus retelling John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Expedition, presented by Merely Players, co-directed by Mona Wood-Patterson and Liz Gray.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Oct. 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 3, 9, 10 and 17.

WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.

ADMISSION: $30.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.merelyplayers.us or call 749-8585.

Playwright Backhaus has dramatically re-envisioned a story about a rough and treacherous expedition made up of cisgender men in the 19th century heroic mode of the time. The playwright specifically envisioned an all-female cast to bring forth then-and-now contrasts in language, storytelling and gender constructs.

When another production of the play opened at Baltimore Center Stage In 2019, critic Cori Dioquino noted the effect of Backhaus’ reasoning: “It’s a powerful choice to retell a tale focused on the crusades of white men with an all-female and nonbinary cast of color. The portrayal of masculinity becomes less a requirement of this historic account and more of a comedic strategy.”

Mona Wood-Patterson, co-director with Liz Gray, of the Merely Players production, said “the unexpected playfulness and surprise cause us to see a familiar story in a fresh way. I’m a history buff, and this is a great vehicle to tell a good story with imagination and creativity. This is what Merely Players is all about.”

“Men on Boats” has been on Wood-Patterson’s short list for some time, she said.

“First, I read it, then I saw a production in Fort Collins,” she said. “It’s a story you think you know. But the play is not a realistic depiction of the expedition, but a modern retelling. Playfulness and surprise are unexpected and cause us to see a familiar story in a new way.”

So many actors responded to the call that Wood-Patterson has two performing casts. Three actors, who portray the three main characters, will appear in all performances: Sarah Choszczyk (Powell), Sharina Ramsey (William H. Dunn), and Mohriah James (John Colton Sumner). In addition, Wood-Patterson decided to cast one male outlier. Stage Manager Marc Arbeeny will appear as Mr. Asa.

“Ten Explorers. Four Boats, Two Casts. One Grand Canyon,” is Wood-Patterson’s shorthand for the production that celebrates the opening of Merely Underground. The company has scheduled 12 performances to accommodate social distancing.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.