While watching Men On Boats, I hearkened back to a production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The atmosphere before the show was electric: this is actually Shakespeare’s Globe! We were thrilled: London went centuries without The Globe, and here it is, and here we are!
What we, the poor benighted audience, didn’t know was that the artistic staff felt seeing a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare’s Globe had become a bore, and they were itching to be edgy. Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled into someone’s great idea of an all-male cast. You know, like in Shakespeare’s times? Except, instead of using a pre-pubescent boy, we got a buff, six-foot-tall dude, hairy chest peeking above his decollete, saying in falsetto:
- I grant I am a woman; but withal
- A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
- Think you I am no stronger than my sex?
I’m sure the visionaries thought the reactions would be: “How edgy! How historical! How transgressive!”
Nope. The actual audience just broke out into nervous giggles. Because, duh! Big, hairy, tatted guy in a dress saying, “Think you I am no stronger than my sex?” In falsetto.
It was impossible to take the tragedy seriously, because any time any amount of theatrical tension built up, one of the big hairy guys in a dress would enter stage left — and everyone would giggle. And the thing is, after an audience gets used to giggling at stuff, they’re predisposed to keep doing it. So we giggled through the stabbing scene. Not such a good production.
New Village Arts Theater’s Men on Boats, on the other hand, used an all-female cast. Solid actors, a couple of them outstanding. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reach the willing suspension of disbelief and forget that these were women playing men.
It wasn’t just me: At the break, I asked several audience members what they thought of the play, and they all began with some variation of “I think it’s awesome that it’s a play called Men on Boats and there aren’t any men.” None of them had anything to say about the actual story (the navigation of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by John Wesley Powell and crew).
So a good time was had by all, laughing at the man-spreading and chest-beating. But what got lost in this good production, just as in the awful Julius Caesar production, was the tragic sense. Even though three (wo)men died, and despite all the suffering they endured along the way, it still read as a comedy.
I don’t know if there’s a way to get past that in the theater, or even if we should keep trying.
Men on Boats runs through April 22.