Thingamajig Theatre Company’s ‘Men on Boats’ to open Oct. 11

Photo courtesy National Park Service
The wooden boats from the Powell Expedition, the scientific excursion that first mapped the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Thingamajig Theatre Company will be presenting an unusual version of this history with its production of Jaclyn Barkhaus’ “Men on Boats,” opening Friday, Oct. 11, and playing through Oct. 27 at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts.

By Bill Hudson
Special to The PREVIEW
The name “Powell” is familiar to residents in southwestern Colorado as part of the designation for Lake Powell, the 161,000-acre reservoir created by the Glenn Canyon Dam. And most have probably heard of the Powell Expedition — the first scientific excursion through the Grand Canyon.
On May 24, 1869, American naturalist John Wesley Powell led a team of adventurers on a voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first recorded passage of white men through the full length of the Grand Canyon. The journey began in Wyoming and lasted three months, concluding at the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin Rivers in present-day Nevada. The company included seasoned mountain men and war veterans who Powell had recruited on his way from Illinois to Wyoming. A classic account of the expedition was published by Powell in 1875 as “Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries.”
A century and a half later, in 2015, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus and director Will Davis brought “Men on Boats” to the stage for the Summerworks theater festival in Toronto, Canada — a rather unusual version of the story, with a cast of 10 women portraying Powell and the nine masculine men who accompanied him on the 1869 expedition.
The characters include the officious Dunn, who not so secretly feels he should be the team leader; Sumner, a Civil War veteran who dreams of finding a tree to climb and sleep in for days; and Old Shady, Powell’s slightly simple-minded brother.
This month, Thingamajig Theatre Company kicks off the 2019-2020 winter season by launching its own production of Backhaus’ “Men on Boats” at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. The show, directed by Thingamajig veteran Melissa Firlit, opens on Friday, Oct. 11, and plays through Oct. 27.
“There’s a lot of movement in the play — especially when the boats are on the water — and that’s attractive to me as a director,” said Firlit. “And I’m also attracted by the chance to tell the audience an historical story.
“And parts of it are really funny.”
Backhaus based the play on Powell’s journal, so the situations are things that actually happened during the 1869 expedition.
Said Firlit, “This was the first government-sponsored exploration of the Grand Canyon, and part of the irony is that the crew is constantly reminded that Native Americans had done this trip many times before.”
Each crew member has his reasons for making the trip and those various reasons are not always compatible. Given the personality conflicts and the physical dangers, we find ourselves wondering how many of the original crew of 10 will arrive finally at the Virgin River.
“The story of the expedition has traditionally been told by men,” offered Thingamajig Artistic Director Tim Moore. “And the playwright thought it would be interesting to tell the story with new voices. And that’s one of Melissa’s strengths as a director — she’s really great at tapping into the new voices in contemporary theater. She’s the first person I thought of to put together a piece like this.”
Although the actors are all female, they portray the male adventurers in a straight-ahead fashion, which naturally lends itself to a sometimes humorous, sometimes delicate, twist on the historical story.
Theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in his 2015 review of the original Toronto production: “‘Men on Boats’ starts from the realization that we can never recreate exactly how it was. This play’s perspective is that of a contemporary reader filtering accounts of another age through her own latter-day sensibility.”
“It’s a fast-paced show,” said Firlit, “and it’s entertaining to watch women embody another gender, struggling with dire circumstances — life and death circumstances — during a very different period of America’s history, but speaking with contemporary voices … to explore the need to conquer.”
Tickets to “Men on Boats” can be included in your 2019-2020 season ticket purchase or as individual tickets, both available at https://pagosacenter.org or by calling the box office at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts at 731-SHOW (7469).

This story was posted on October 7, 2019.