The Theme of Colonization Stars in Student Production “Men on Boats”
By Joanna Reid
“Men on Boats” played in the Olmstead Theatre from April 11-16. Adelphi brought in New York City based director, Lauren Kiele DeLeon. She also directed the university’s production of “A Rose Meant to Wither” and many productions throughout New York City such as, “Sarita” with the Roundabout Theatre Company and “Surely Goodness and Mercy” at the Clurman Theatre.
“Men on Boats” follows the story of several sailors navigating their way to the Colorado River. Their journey isn’t easy; the men have difficulty finding a consistent source of food and they have difficulty managing the strength of the rapid river. This show is loosely based on a true story of an 1869 expedition.
It is fascinating that despite the name of the show, it had an entirely non-male cast. According to DeLeon the writer Jacklyn Backhaus, “insists everyone be [portrayed by] anyone other than cis men.” This allows audience members to hone in on the fact that these men are flawed and unconcerned about anyone other than themselves. It’s interesting to note that the pronoun “she” is only used a couple of times to reference the boats. The cast included Nikki Colaitis, NayaJoy Dean-Colbert, Alexis Favia, Katie Goz, Mie Marie A. Holand, Alyssa Infranco, Grace Lardner, Gianna Nicoletta, Tabirah Muhammad and Sarah Baileigh.
The lighting and scenic design complemented the show well. Wavy green and blue lights were projected onto the stage to represent the water. And white lights were used to highlight the canyon and the actors on stage. The canyon was made up of wood, cardboard and brown paper. The boats were made of wood and handles, so the actors could pick the boats up and control them.
The acting was believable. The performers pulled off being frustrated men from the 1800s. The costume design was also reminiscent of men’s fashion from the mid-19th century with waistcoats, suspenders and fitted pants. Costume designer Lex Schlee, a senior theater tech and design major, discussed her process.
“It’s kind of interesting doing a period piece because it’s such a different style a lot of times than modern garments,” she said. “So a lot of stock stuff we have is just modern stuff or at least more modern, so you kind of have to figure out how to make things work.”
Schlee said that she took inspiration from Western fashion as well, which makes sense for a show that took place in early America and highlighted the theme of colonization in the show.
The story brought out the issues of colonization by having the characters want to name the canyon after themselves. At one point, Captain Powell, portrayed by Grace Lardner, mentions that all of the land they were on had likely already been named by the Native people. This dialogue didn’t feel natural to me because I doubt this is something that even crossed the minds of white men in the 1800s. I don’t think this line was needed to point out the issues of colonization; the piece does that inherently.
Adelphi’s production of “Men on Boats” was timely because Native American people are constantly under attack by the law and Americans are just beginning to realize this problem. Few plays have an entirely non-male cast; therefore it was nice to see many strong non-male actors of Adelphi’s Theatre Department be presented in this work.