CRT’s “Men in Boats” – A Valiant Effort Sunk by Technology

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By Karen Isaacs

Men on Boats was in rehearsal and about to open as a Studio Production at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theater last March, when theaters closed. Now, director Beth Gardiner has reconfigured it for virtual live performances streaming through Oct. 17.

Unfortunately, technical issues makes it difficult to evaluate fairly the production. It shows how hard it is to create a virtual theatrical experience.

On the surface, Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus is both fascinating and puzzling. The play is about the all-male expedition to explore the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon that was led by Major John Wesley Powell in 1869. Yet the play was written for all the characters to be played by women though they characters themselves remain men. The press materials uses words like “engaging, funny, and ironic ride,“ and that “ catastrophe and hilarity ensue!”

Somehow I missed most of that. The 1869 expedition which was partially supported by the Smithsonian Institute was not the first; besides the indigenous people, the Spanish had explored the area centuries before and in the 1800s there had been several American expeditions.

This one was led by geologist Powell, who had lost an arm in the civil war, and a somewhat ragtag group veterans who set out from Wyoming. The original expedition had nine men and four boats. Partway through three men left the group (and were killed) and one boat capsized destroying most of the food. The remaining men not only survived but completed almost the entire journey.

The CRT production features backgrounds, sets, costumes and props – the paddles that propelled the boats.

The ten men represent a variety of types – from the young British man out for adventure to brothers; the usual bickering, jealousies and alliances that are formed during a perilous experience.  Alex Campbell was excellent as Powell as was the entire cast. You could see Camille Fortin as Dunn constantly challenging Powell’s leadership and Lily Lang was the stalwart cook and keeper of the inventory.

So while the play has on the whole gained praise, what happened to this production? Possibly it was the attempt to make it virtual – with ten boxes on the screen against a backdrop that recalled the Grand Canyon walls. But with those boxes came difficulty in sometimes knowing who was speaking and the technology made the few attempts at unison speaking out of sync.

The cast did a good job adding motion to the piece, from the paddling to the reactions to the various rapids to the capsizing of one of the boats. But missing was the sense of camaraderie and the connections this group had to have made during the journey as they faced the hardships.

With no audience present I found the humor difficult to discern; the lack of full body photography (at least a good part of the time) made it more difficult for the actors to portray male body language.

CRT is to be commended for attempting this and giving the performers who had prepared for last spring’s production a chance to perform it.

Yet, the technology left me puzzled as to why this play has received so many positive comments. The author’s point of view seems to have been lost.

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