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Men on Boats, Oakton High School, Vienna, Virginia, November 8, 2019

Julianne Cuevo

Flint Hill School


How far will you go to make history? And is that history yours to claim? In their production of Men on Boats, the students of Oakton High School tackled these questions as they made a perilous trek through the American frontier.

In the summer of 1869, ten men set out to explore the American southwest, particularly the Green and Colorado Rivers and the Grand Canyon. Led by naturalist and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, they charted hundreds of miles of territory, but not without plenty of hardship. Flash forward to 2015, when Jaclyn Backhaus used Powell's journals to create Men on Boats, a dramatization of the famous Powell expedition. But Men on Boats has a crucial twist: all the explorers are played by women. Amidst the play's drama and comedy, overtones of social commentary dare audiences to challenge their own beliefs about gender and American history.


The ensemble of ten explorers was entertaining and engaging to watch. Each actor did a great job embodying her specific character, and the chemistry shared by all developed them into a cohesive team, even in times of disagreement and distress. This was most evident in scenes on the river, where the danger posed by rocks and rapids called for intense emotion. The actors perfectly captured the terror of these scenes, making their journey more believable and every close call an immense relief. Throughout the show, their energy provided a balance of tension and heavy social commentary with moments of comedy, doing justice to the play's complexity.


Madison Shannon portrayed John Wesley Powell, successfully demonstrating Powell's struggle between the strength of his convictions and the unforgiving nature of the frontier. As the Grand Canyon increasingly threatens the lives of the team, Powell must make difficult, often unpopular decisions to accomplish the mission, and Shannon stayed true to her character while navigating these trials. She delivered admirably several emotional monologues, and her conflict with other characters including  William Dunn (Becky Woolf) always felt authentic.


Other standouts from the ensemble included Sarah Bleier (Hawkins) and Aspen Harter (Old Shady). Bleier's hilarious facial expressions and physicality made Hawkins, the team's cook and designated snake-killer, an audience favorite. Her interactions with the other explorers, whether she was accusing O.G. Howland (Lindsey Cliff) of stealing tobacco or bonding with Hall (Rachel Rizzo) over being in the "Party Boat," were both funny and riveting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Harter was strong and silent as Old Shady. While the other explorers would scream and thrash about in times of trouble on the river, Harter maintained a stoic expression, which was fitting with her character and satisfying to see.


Technically, the show was masterful. The crew used a real rock-climbing wall to create the textured walls of the canyon, transporting the audience into the Grand Canyon. The lighting team, led by Abby Cortez, projected beautiful lights onto the walls and ceiling, imitating the reflection of light off the river and onto the rocks of the canyon, further adding to the immersive experience. In addition, the student-composed music performed by Asa Nero and Nathan Guevara was incredibly impressive. The score complemented the action onstage, from the intense river scenes to the calmer, fire-lit nights.


The cast and crew of Men on Boats at Oakton High School traversed much more than the Grand Canyon; they explored one of America's most controversial periods through a variety of different lenses. Most importantly, they showed audiences that we must persevere, even in times of great danger. We might die, yes, but we also might live.

Maddy Rubin

Langley High School


Keep left, avoid the rocks, and hop aboard the Emma Dean! Venture into the canyon with Oakton High School's production of Men on Boats. Based on the 1869 Powell Expedition, Men on Boats chronicled the adventures of a scrappy crew of frontiersmen and adventurers as they made the perilous journey down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. Written by Jaclyn Backhaus, this 2015 play reimagines the masculine conquest of the American West as a witty comedy featuring an all-female cast.


The leader of this expedition was the one-armed veteran of the Civil War, John Wesley Powell, played by Madison Shannon. Shannon's impassioned appeals to unity and sincere care for the men under her command had the audience ready to pick up an oar and join the expedition. The balance of stern authority and heart-wrenching humanity created a character who was strong enough to battle personal limitations, as well as the forces of the canyon. Other standout performances included Becky Woolf as William Dunn, the earnest and stubborn hunter, and Sarah Bleier as Hawkins, the expedition's cook whose notable moments included killing a snake with a coffee pot.


Men on Boats' greatest strength was in the cohesion and chemistry of its ensemble cast. The camaraderie between these brothers-in-arms was on full display as the men clashed with the forces of nature, but also in the rare moments of peace between the white water. From the sheer panic displayed by the men as they wrestled with ropes and rapids to save their fellow explorers from a capsized boat, to the heart-felt moments shared around a flickering campfire. Each individual actor created a unique character with distinct mannerisms, and this realism helped create an immersive experience for the audience, who felt their hearts pounding as the cast cascaded down waterfalls and let out a collective sigh of relief every time the expedition safely ‘banked'.


Contributing to this immersive experience was the original score by Asa Nero and Nathan Guevara that artfully sets the tone for both high-tension scenes on the river and the moments of quiet majesty as the men admired the scenery before them. In addition to the score, atmospheric sound effects (by Jack Odell, Elliott Frank, and Grace Lionato) including the chirping of crickets and the crackling of the fire further immersed the audience. Impressively, the sound team was also able to create an echo effect that gave the illusion of voices reverberating against the steep walls of the canyon. The depth of the canyon was further alluded to by a creative lighting design (by Abby Cortez, Evran Walter, JJ Feeney, and Lisa Gaspari) which utilized rust and gold tones to demonstrate the majesty of the canyons. The technical elements worked seamlessly together to portray the awe-inspiring experience of being the first to encounter a whole new world.


Oakton High School's production of Men on Boats paired moments of genuine human connection with the tomfoolery and hijinks of young men, alone in uncharted territory. Playful and profound, Men on Boats is as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon and as unique as the men who ventured into the last pockets of the American frontier.


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