Review: ‘Men On Boats’ satirizes the American West


‘Men On Boats’ was a theatre production shown last semester as part of the University Theater’s production line-up. (Sarah Delgado/The Collegian)

By Diego Vargas, Managing Editor

“Men On Boats” premiered on March 24 in Fresno State’s University Theatre, taking audiences on a voyage of comedy and companionship.

Written by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, this iteration of the play is directed by Gina Sandí-Díaz, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

The play, originally adapted from American explorer John Wesley Powell’s journal entries of the American west in the 1800s, takes place in 1869 and follows Powell and his crew’s adventure as they traverse the Green and Colorado rivers toward the Grand Canyon.

Powell, played by senior Sabrina Ramirez, is sent on a government sanctioned expedition and is joined by a loyal crew of lively explorers. The crew of male characters are all played by a gender-inclusive cast.

The play begins with the crew braving the rapids of a river, working together to keep their boats afloat amid the raging waters. Early on, the cast is loud, energetic and captures the feeling of life on the frontier.

The play is very much a comedy, with many slapstick and satirical jokes spread evenly throughout the entire production. The jokes land perfectly. Their deliveries are sometimes exaggerated and deadpan but always draws laughter from the audience.

There are real moments of loss and melancholy as the crew loses provisions and even entire boats as the story progresses. The comedic elements of the play don’t take away or diminish the impact of these more profound moments.

For Ramirez, she does an excellent job with her character. She is serious, stern and fiercely loyal to the mission but also shows vulnerability as well. In a scene between Powell and Bradley, played by Paulina D. Marin Contreras, Powell has difficulty climbing up a rock, expressing a fear of falling off. Ramirez’s high-pitched delivery, paired with Contreras’ frantic reactions, make for an incredibly funny interaction.

William Dunn, played by Stephanie Axsom, is the source of conflict within the play. Growing dismayed with Powell’s leadership, Dunn questions his decisions, clashing with Powell and arguing about the survivability of their journey. At the same time, Dunn is infatuated with the idea of having a landmark named after him. One scene between him and Powell highlights the irony of American explorers naming mountains and valleys after themselves knowing that Natives have already named the lands many years before they came along.

Dunn is often seen with O.G and Seneca Howland, a pair of brothers who always look out for each other. Played by Austin Osuna and Jazmin Valdez, the Howland brothers often talk at the same time, backing up Dunn’s arguments while also supporting each other throughout the story. Osuna and Valdez also play as Just Jim and Johnson, two men who are close to the local Native tribe who show ire towards Powell and his crew. Osuna’s and Valdez’s performance throughout the play is a mixture of a stalwart devotion to each other and comedic synchronization.

Bradley, played by Contreras, is the comic relief character. Naive but incredibly loyal and joyous, Bradley’s lines and actions in the play are always entertaining. Though they are always on the receiving end of jokes, Bradley’s presence always livens up the mood of the crew and commands the attention of the audience.

Hall and Hawkins, a mapmaker and a cook, played by Molly Smith and Jizzel Nunez, are another duo in the play that work incredibly well together. Much like best friends, Hall and Hawkins are constantly together, sharing laughs, caring for each other and even performing a sort-of secret handshake. Smith’s and Nunez’s performance together is over-the-top, incredibly energetic.

Old Shady, Powell’s brother and an intense outdoorsman, is played by Samantha Ramos. A veteran of war like his brother, Old Shady seldom partakes in conversation and takes the expedition just as seriously as his brother. However, when the crew settles down at night, Old Shady bursts into song, with Ramos’ voice taking center stage. Ramos’ performance is compelling and their deliveries always convey a tone of firmness.

Frank Goodman, a well-off British man who is an explorer by sport, is played by Emily King. King is effortlessly able to convey feelings of growing desperation and panic, as Goodman is increasingly antagonized by the crew, especially by the Howland brothers. King’s performance is funny, captivating and enjoyable to watch.

John Colton Sumner, played by Ethan Magill, is a young explorer who is optimistic and loyal to Powell’s expedition. Magill’s performance is highlighted by an ability to suddenly switch between serious and comedic. Though Sumner has instances in the play in which he takes the situation seriously, Magill’s funny deliveries during more comedic scenes always landed.

It is this dichotomy between comedy and seriousness that makes the play work well. Each actor has an opportunity to show off their comedic and dramatic prowess.

This dynamic performance from the actors gives the entire production a good balance of funny moments and heartfelt scenes.

Overall, the play satirizes the idea of the rugged, masculine explorer that “discovers” lands that have already been lived on for thousands of years. The joke is really on those white men who named lands after themselves.

“Men On Boats” will continue to show at University Theatre until Apr. 1. Tickets are available on the Fresno State University Theatre Twitter and Instagram page and at the box office.