PORT TOWNSEND — The water is white, the rocks are red, the food is scarce and the men are women. Got it?
This is a brave new West we’re paddling toward in “Men on Boats,” an exploratory comedy starting Thursday at Key City Public Theatre.
Denise Winter, the woman at Key City’s helm, was seeking emerging playwrights last year when she found Jaclyn Backhaus, author of this story based on the journals of explorer John Wesley Powell. A one-armed Union Army veteran, he led the 1869 mapmaking expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers into the Grand Canyon.
By the playwright’s mandate, all performances of “Men on Boats” — from New York City to Port Townsend — must have all-woman casts. This didn’t faze Winter as she picked the opening show for the 2019 season.
“I knew we had the talent to showcase,” she said, adding that in addition to the cast, the show’s crew includes well-known local artists who’re female: Designer Margie McDonald, for example, created a stage set evocative of a high-walled canyon.
On this trip, our motley band of travelers faces hostile weather and treacherous waters, and at least two of them suffer from post-traumatic stress from fighting in the Civil War. Perhaps the roughest part of the journey involves coexisting peaceably with one’s fellow adventurer, especially when supper and whiskey are hard to come by.
“We perceive these robust and dashing historical explorers through a different lens because they’re being performed by women,” said director Genevieve Barlow. Each one is on this expedition for his/her own reason. And each one, she added, calls on masculine and feminine qualities to stay alive.
Still, this is a comedy, a satire with light and dark parts — and women who rock their menswear.
“There will be no grand reveal in which facial hair is ripped off and hats are thrown down and we all gasp,” Barlow quipped.
“Instead we oscillate,” between ideas of manliness and womanliness, so “at times, there are 10 women on a stage,” the director said, “and at others there are men sitting around a campfire. But they are always explorers on boats.”
The cast includes Michelle Hensel as Powell, Erin Lamb as his brother Old Shady, Rosaletta Curry as hunter-trapper Bill Dunn and Maggie Jo Bulkley as the prissy one on the trip.
Consuelo Aduviso and Christa Holbrook play dual roles: as white explorers and as members of the Ute tribe.
Completing the paddling crew are Karen Anderson, Bry Kifolo, Ciel Pope and Bonnie Obremski as mapmaker Andrew Hall.
“Like myself, Hall is a nerdy and awkward adventurer,” Obremski said.
“He has a desire for friendship, but his insecurities can make it hard for him to feel relaxed in the friendship,” so he doesn’t always connect with his companions. At the same time, the others see that he’s really trying, and that endears him to them.
For Obremski, “Men on Boats” isn’t about segregating genders or making fun of traditionally masculine traits.
“It’s about humanity, and how much truth can be revealed through humor,” she said, and “how much understanding we can build by connecting the past with the present.”
She’s also having the time of her life in this ensemble. A writer and the creator of the Storyborne online magazine, Obremski spends most of her day in front of a computer screen.
To others who are screen-bound, she says: Come take a good look at real, live human beings for two hours — “human beings who are being weird and messy and silly and rejoicing in it.”
“Come for the human-watching, stay for the humor,” and leave with plenty to think about.
What, where, when and how much
• “Men on Boats,” written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Genevieve Barlow of Key City Public Theatre.
• Preview is Thursday; opening night is Friday and the show runs through April 27 at the Key City Playhouse, 419 Washington St., Port Townsend.
• Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with the lobby opening an hour before the show.
• Tickets range from $15 to $29 via keycitypublictheatre.org, 360-385-5278 and at the door. Patrons can also stop by the playhouse during office hours from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays.
• Pay-what-you-wish performances, sponsored by the Port Townsend Arts Commission, are at 2:30 p.m. this coming Sunday and 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, April 18.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.