All women, all aboard

Taos Onstage does 'Men on Boats' as an educational kick-in-the-pants

By Laura Bulkin
Posted 4/24/19

In 1869, one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell led a crew of 10 soldiers, hunters and adventurous mountain men on a geographical expedition to chart the course of the Colorado River. In …

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All women, all aboard

Taos Onstage does 'Men on Boats' as an educational kick-in-the-pants


In 1869, one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell led a crew of 10 soldiers, hunters and adventurous mountain men on a geographical expedition to chart the course of the Colorado River. In 2017, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus reimagined the famous journey as a subversive tale in which Powell and his loyal volunteers are all portrayed by women.

Taos Onstage will be presenting Backhaus' play, "Men on Boats," which opens today (April 25) for a two-week run at the Taos Onstage Theatre, 101-A Camino de la Placita.

The story stays close to Powell's published record of the journey. We follow Powell and his crew as they bond, scrap, joke, reminisce and argue about directions -- like any group traveling together, but with higher stakes: boats capsize, food and supplies are lost to the river and not all of the characters (or all of the boats) complete the expedition.

Chelsea Reidy is directing the play. "It seemed like it would be an interesting challenge, and it was," Reidy said. "We have singers, dancers and actors in this show. All talented, all different, most of them more experienced than I am. The entire show will be a surprise. We've created a river and boats in rapids through actors in motion, actors performing action. Other aspects, I'd rather not describe. I think the audience will enjoy being nudged into the actors' collective imagination. Coming up with action-concepts inspired by danger and rescue was a challenge for the actors and for me. Ten women, with ages that span four decades, are on an adventure together. They help each other and turn against each other. My hope is that audiences will appreciate the artistic choices we've made."

Susan Nuss, who plays John Colton Sumner, initially brought the play to Reidy's attention. "I was searching for plays with all-female casts and came across this one, and and it sounded like an educational kick-in-the-pants! Chelsea took it and ran with it, just like I knew she would. She added music and dance, she's interpreting the scenes in unique ways and she's encouraging all of us to add our own creativity. I love plays that offer learning opportunities without being boring or too dry. This play is completely accessible to an audience."

Singer, actor and Gutiz restaurateur Jennifer Peterson plays Major Powell. "He's the leader of the expedition," Peterson said. "He is incredibly focused, loves to find time to take in the beauty of his surroundings but doesn't have time for other people's crap. The biggest challenge for me has been learning to do things with one arm. It has been an enriching experience. We have lots of laughs as we work out the logistics of the boats, movement and relationships between our characters."

Actor and musician Roe Ziccarello has lit up the stage in many of Teatro Serpiente's shows, including the troupe's long-running live-action comedy series "Gorilla Romance," as well as musical productions with other companies. "In the spirit of changing gender roles and values, I was enthralled at the idea of 10 women playing 10 men," Ziccarello said. "My character is a bit of a scaredy-cat who puts on this tough guy act. I also play a Ute chief who helps when the expedition runs into trouble. I hope to convey the irony that the Utes were helpful to the expedition, even after the raw deal that they were handed back in the 1860s."

Judith Rane, a veteran performer with a slew of stage, film and television credits, plays Old Shady. "Any character that has multiple layers of his/her psyche is a challenge to play. It's been unbelievably challenging, enjoyable and an honor. It's theater, it's 'off the wall.' Come to the show and you'll see what I mean."

Actor Mary Walker said she was drawn to the show "because it was all women, because Chelsea was directing, because it breaks all kinds of conventions of theater and life. Despite it being 2019, an adventure story with all women players is still rare. Everyone has been so kind and supportive. From the musical selections to the movement and props. It's a constant imaginative stretching of time and space and people and objects in space, while relaying this somewhat remarkable story that is true -- mostly."

Elena Trujillo has been a mainstay of Taos theater since her grade school debut as a "Wizard of Oz" Munchkin. "When I saw who was involved in this production, I had to be a part of it. My character, Seneca, is very deeply tied to his brother, played by Roe Ziccarello. They have been through a lot together. It has been wonderful to work so closely with Roe again as we worked together for two years on 'Gorilla Romance.' It's a unique play staged in an original way with a superb cast of talented actors."

"Men on Boats" also features beloved Taos performers Katy Palmier, Gina Gargone, Rita O'Connell and Jazzmine Freedom.

"If you want to go on a fantastic voyage through the Grand Canyon in 1869, but you can't travel through time and you don't like getting wet, come see 'Men on Boats,' " Nuss said. "And to see Judith Rane onstage again -- that alone is worth the price of admission!"

Additional performances are planned Friday and Saturday (April 26-27) and May 2-4 at 7:30 p.m. There are also Sunday matinees planned April 28 and May 5 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information and advance tickets, visit or call (575) 224-4587. Tickets are also available at the door.


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