Adventure narratives tend to work better on the page and on the screen than on the stage.
That is one of the issues bedeviling “Men on Boats,’’ a play by Jaclyn Backhaus that was inspired by the 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers, led by John Wesley Powell, that culminated in a passage through the Grand Canyon.
The twist in “Men on Boats,’’ now at SpeakEasy Stage Company, is Backhaus stipulated the play be cast with racially diverse actors who are female, trans, gender-fluid, or gender-nonconforming to portray Powell and the expedition’s other white male members.
SpeakEasy director Dawn M. Simmons has done so, and her cast, on balance, does a fine job. So does Simmons. The problem is the play, which remains stranded in an uneasy middle ground, neither clever enough to be a first-rate comedy nor incisive enough to shed new light on the issues of historical representation that presumably are part of what animated Backhaus to write “Men on Boats.’’
It’s laudable that she sought, via the casting of her play, to expand the lens through which we apprehend the past. For groups that have been relegated to the margins of history or erased from its pages altogether, such steps are deeply meaningful.
But for the impact of this innovative casting to really register onstage, what’s required is a more subversive spirit and a sharper point of view than “Men on Boats’’ displays. The play instead comes across as doggedly ordinary, and its storytelling momentum is hobbled by the sheer size of the cast. Though the play is based on the journals of the expedition published by Powell — a one-armed geologist and former major in the Civil War, played by Robin JaVonne Smith at SpeakEasy — we don’t really get to know any of the 10 explorers in any depth.
Outfitted by costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt in 19th-century duds, they often speak in a deliberately anachronistic 21st-century vernacular as the play re-creates their dangerous journey on a US government-sanctioned expedition from Wyoming through parts of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona to present-day Nevada. Along the way the explorers squabble and try to survive. At one point they have a harrowing encounter with a snake; at another they seek the assistance of wryly derisive Native Americans who toy with them verbally.
A rough-hewn, DIY aesthetic governs the SpeakEasy production. Jenna McFarland Lord’s set is dominated by walls of high-density foam upstage that simulate rocky canyon country, along with platforms at either side of the stage.
To enact the passage down the river, cast members clasp wooden, boat-shaped frames and march in place. The pulse of the production accelerates when the explorers must run stretches of choppy rapids, and especially when their boats capsize, knocking passengers overboard. The cast throws itself with gusto into those scenes, well staged by Simmons. Among the standouts are Veronika Duerr as the combative hunter and trapper William Dunn, who clearly believes he should be in charge of the expedition, and Mal Malme as Old Shady, Major Powell’s phlegmatically loyal, ditty-singing older brother.
When the explorers first gaze upon what they call the Big Canyon, it is an evocative, light-filled moment, suffused with the wonder of discovery. The most trenchant scene in “Men on Boats,’’ though, happens earlier in the play, when Powell and Dunn are discussing what the federal government’s plans might be for the land after their expedition is over. Dunn opines that he might like to return to live there, noting that “the Natives have lived in these lands for centuries.’’
Replies Powell: “Well, they’ve also probably named all this land already. And here we are naming it after ourselves.’’
MEN ON BOATS
Play by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 7. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.