Arts Alive: Cappies Review of Men on Boats at Oakton High School

By Communications and Community Relations Staff
February 17, 2020

Fairfax County Public Schools students are talented actors, musicians, and visual artists. Many FCPS high schools participate in the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Critics and Awards Program for High School Theatre, otherwise known as the Cappies.

The Cappies is a program through which high school theater and journalism students are trained as critics, attend shows at other schools, write reviews, and publish those reviews in local newspapers. There are fifteen Cappies chapters across the United States and Canada. 

Editor's Note: This review of Oakton High School's production of Men on Boats is written by Stacia Datskovska of Langley High School. 

In American history, bold men have often claimed lands, named them after themselves, and basked in subsequent glory. But to what extent were their discoveries really original? And just how proportional was the glory to the real scope of their achievements? Oakton High School's production, Men on Boats, grapples with such existential ideas in their bitingly funny and profoundly ironic tale of exploration, camaraderie, and the oft-denied truth of human fallibility.

The play, published by Jaclyn Backhaus in 2017, features a rugged crew of men (portrayed by an intentionally all-female cast) who are sanctioned by the government to document their exploration of the Grand Canyon. Plagued by misfortunes, the men's experiences quickly extend beyond river rapids and canyons and into the complex terrain of self-doubt and jarring realizations of their own inflated heroism. Oakton's high-spirited performers captured the essence of the expeditionaries' masculinity while infusing it with uniquely-subliminal feminine characteristics.

Major Powell (Madison Shannon) is a macho leader who makes up for what he lacks in an upper-body appendage with his superb ability to bolster crew spirits. Through versatile and highly-attuned facial expressions, Shannon gave audiences a glimpse into the vulnerable side of Powell, while her self-assured stage presence granted cast members a metaphorical "rock" to grasp onto amidst many a physical one. Other inspiring performances included Becky Woolf as William Dunn, who was a more reserved foil to Powell's sheer intensity, and Jackson Smith as Bradley, whose buoyancy and ringing voice gave her character an appealing if unusual twist of childlike eagerness. Additionally, Sarah Bleier, playing Hawkins, never failed to incite laughter as her magnetic qualities of spunk and sass redefined traditional masculine constructs. Though it took a while for some cast members to truly warm up to their roles, once achieved, they were able to tackle the intricacies of their characters in true adventure-man fashion.

The show's lighting, directed by Abby Cortez and team, mirrored the ebb and flow of the expeditionaries' emotions as it transitioned from playfully warm to intimate to menacing, never missing a beat. Props were also discerningly-placed by Matthew Kim and Seth Cortez; particularly noteworthy was the use of an artificial fire which illuminated Powell's face as he blew it out every night and symbolized his inevitable centrality in the plot. The props also conveyed action and tension -- such as when each boat was almost-vertically cast down an imaginary waterfall, functioning solely by the cast member's bodily manipulation. The costume design (Abigail Soria, Sarah Madison, and Ava Fisken), if a little oversimplified, ultimately contributed to the show's implicit message that even after their impressive feat, most of the men went back to their previous destitution, while a new generation of explorers claimed they "discovered" the same lands and walked the same paths first.

At the close of the play, the spotlight promptly focused on a character that had nothing to do with the expedition, allowing audiences to go on pondering the limits of human achievement and the deceptive nature of glory long after the last line was said and the last bow was taken.

Subscribe to the 2019-20 FCPS Theater Calendar

Do you love watching high school theater? If so, check out the Fine and Performing Arts calendar on the FCPS website. Individual listings for many middle and high school theater events are listed through June 2020. Users can subscribe to the calendar to be notified of upcoming performances, and each event can be added to a calendar or shared on social media. See the Fine and Performing Arts calendar