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‘Men on Boats’ at ISU: A play about John Wesley Powell with neither men nor boats

Three groups huddle in triangular frames representing the front of a trio of canoes. They hold tight onto the boats' edges, simulating white water rafting on solid ground.
Stefanie Henkel
Illinois State University
The cast of "Men on Boats" are seen in a Feb. 6 rehearsal at Illinois State University. The play runs Feb. 17-25 at Westhoff Theatre.

Director Maggie Marlin-Hess could not wait to get her hands on “Men on Boats.”

“Ever since I saw this title two years ago, I knew this was a piece I wanted to do,” said Marlin-Hess, who is also a musical theater professor at Illinois State University.

“Men on Boats” runs Feb. 17-25 in the Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State. As a choreographer, Marlin-Hess was drawn to the play’s potential for movement.

“It’s not dance choreography, but it is stylized,” she said. “We tried to imagine different water flow, because it’s all down the river. They’re either floating down the river or they’re at camp.”

To be clear, there is no water in “Men on Boats.” Instead, the raging rapids of the Green and Colorado Rivers are imagined, with body language and dialogue inferring the harrowing danger the men in boats face.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus calls “Men on Boats” a “true(ish)” retelling of real events loosely based on a team of explorers’ 1869 government sanctioned expedition through an expanding American West. The trek is led by Major John Wesley Powell — a familiar name in central Illinois history.

Powell was not a major, by the way, although he liked the title for himself. The Civil War veteran lost his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh, ending his military service with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. He served as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute. And he was a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and lecturer at Illinois State.

“John Wesley Powell keeps immaculate journals; he has a mapmaker with him,” said Marlin-Hess. “They’re charting this territory as though it’s this new frontier.”

Manifest Destiny is a major theme running through the play.

“It was a God-ordained mission to carry out and settle these ‘wild lands,’” Marlin-Hess said.

Of course, those lands were settled all along by indigenous people. “Men on Boats” remarks on the arrogance and presumption of frontiersmen “discovering” land and naming it after themselves: Lake Powell, for example, and Dunn’s Cliff, after William H. Dunn, another explorer on the expedition.

Marlin-Hess said the play “celebrates the bravery of these men and the ambition of going out and exploring.”

“Much like the race for space, it’s an honorable idea to pursue,” she said. “The confliction is that these lands are already inhabited and we’re behaving as though they are not.”

Backhaus wrote the play with specific casting instructions that the men in “Men on Boats” shan’t be men.

“Halfway through writing the script, Jaclyn Backhaus discovered she could not be in her own play,” Marlin-Hess said. “This play is based on historically white, cisgender males, so the cast is everything but.”

With these deep-seated themes at play, it may surprise audiences to discover that “Men on Boats” is hilariously funny.

“This play reminds me of Indiana Jones,” said Marlin-Hess “We have this hero, and I don’t know how he doesn’t fail each time he tries to do something. He seems completely incompetent but incredibly confident. That bravado, that overcommitment — we can laugh at the truths of our society. We can laugh that this is a true thing.”

“Men on Boats” runs through Feb. 17-25 in the Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State University, 353 S. School St. Tickets and more information at finearts.illinoisstate.edu.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.