Men On Boats: True(ish) history comes to life on Carlsbad stage

The last day of Women's History Month 2018 is March 31 — a fine time for Carlsbad's New Village Arts Theatre to open "Men On Boats," a "gender-bent historical adventure comedy" about John Wesley Powell's 10-man 1869 expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon ... with women playing all the roles.

The reason there's an all-female cast is: that's the way playwright Jacklyn Backhaus wrote it. It's part of the current effort to incorporate women, non-white men and the full range of gender-benders into the traditionally white-male-driven narratives onstage, onscreen and in the real world. (Think "Hamilton.")

First staged in New York in 2015, "Men On Boats" received great reviews there and has gone on to successful productions around the country. A good part of the show's excitement comes from the sound design and projections, which bring the raging river waters to life onstage.

"We have to create the Grand Canyon in a 99-seat theater," said AJ Knox, NVA's Connectivity Director.

I connected with "Men On Boats" sound and projections designer, Melanie Chen Cole, who has a B.A. in Music and an M.F.A. in Sound Design from UC San Diego, and does soundscapes for theaters all over the county.

Describing her current project, Cole said: "We have men on boats, but no men, and no boats. The director, Melissa Coleman-Reed, works a lot with expressive movement, and each 'boat '— there are four of them — has its own signature moves. My job is to layer on top of what the actors are doing and saying, to enhance the urgency and energy of their voices with water sounds and music."

She started out listening to the music of the mid-to-late 1800s and collecting bits of country-sounding fiddle and guitar music, then adding electronic beats to imitate waves. "There are speakers in the back of the theater, like surround sound," Cole said. "So the audience will feel engulfed by the water, and the projections will add the visual element, a sense that there's really a moving river these people are navigating."

Kristianne Kurner, an award-winning actor-director who also happens to be NVA's founder and artistic director, plays John Wesley Powell, the charismatic, one-armed adventurer who spearheads the expedition. All in all, "Men On Boats" promises to be a wild ride for performers and audiences alike.

About John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was born in upstate New York, but his family moved to Illinois, where he attended (but never graduated from) college. A veteran of the Civil War, where he lost most of his right arm, he was always interested in exploration. As a young man, he had walked across Wisconsin and rowed down the Mississippi from Minnesota to the sea, among other adventures.

After the war, he became a professor of geology and a curator at the Illinois State Museum of Natural History, whose collections he helped expand. In 1869, after leading expeditions into Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, he put together a team to explore the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. The 930-mile trip took almost three months, with several of the men dropping out along the way. He retraced part of the journey in 1871, wrote a book about it and, in 1891, was appointed director of the U.S. Geological Society.

An early anthropologist and conservationist, he has a mountain peak, a mineral, and several public buildings named for him, as well as the popular, man-made Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River.

• IF YOU GO: "Men on Boats" is on stage March 31-April 22, 2018 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., in Carlsbad. Tickets: $25-$36. (760) 433-3245. newvillagearts.org

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