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"Men on Boats" show #864

Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats re-imagines the 1869 government-sponsored expedition to the Grand Canyon by putting a female lens on the trip. Historically, the exploration through the Colorado River was conducted by men, complete with all “discoveries,” credit, and a place in history. However, by utilizing performers who identify as female, gender fluid, and non-gender conforming, director Gina Sandi-Diaz has helmed a sterling production, taking Blackhaus’s script and making it an accessible and astute piece for its audience.

(Cast of Men on Boats; Photo credit: Miguel A. Gastelum)

The trick of making a play like this work is having the cast move and deliver the text as an ensemble from start to finish. The staging, cadence, pace, and scene work must be on a level playing field of allegiance to the piece and delivery of the text, and this Fresno State company has done precisely that. There are few monologues to give break to the ensemble cast, exposing any bumps in pacing or catching any of the ten in the acting company not at full commitment. Sandi-Diaz’s staging shows the trips down the river in a visually artistic fashion, complete with call outs and literal rocking of the boats. Joel Alaniz-Ayala’s sound design is particularly exceptional in the volume and dynamic levels of the weather elements and rough waters, supporting the intensity and high-stakes acting the ensemble gives.

(Cast of Men on Boats; Photo credit: Miguel A. Gastelum)

Standout performances come from Ethan Magill’s patient yet steadfast John Colton Sumner, Stephanie Axsom’s defiant and earnest William Dunn, and Jizzel Nunez’s stoic but deeply felt Hawkins. Sabrina Ramirez leads the charge as leader of the expedition, John Wesley Powell, and she and Axsom share a tender scene where Dunn gets what they’ve been working towards: getting a piece of land named after him. Tamrah Sales’s costumes do the job finely, being of 1860’s period and giving nice aesthetic against Cecilia Fisher terrain-inspired and functional scenic design of the western topography.

Men on Boats is perfectly suited for Fresno State University theatre, as they know how to elevate stories like Blackhaus’s to a visual entertainment which audiences will both learn from and find value in from first line to final bow. This is a show worthy of your patronage, a story that many may not be aware of in American history, and one that is being interpreted terrifically by Sandi-Diaz, team, and cast. Go see this show!

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