Addison — “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics from Henry Higgins’ professorial query in My Fair Lady succinctly describes the theme of The Explorers Club, Nell Benjamin’s shamelessly silly and gag-packed comedy spoofing the fabled misogyny of Victorian era gentlemen’s clubs. Benjamin, coauthor of the musical hits Legally Blonde and Sarah, Plain and Tall, likes her gals smart and sassy—and her determined heroine in this fits the bill.
WaterTower Theatre’s posh production, directed with the speed of farce and bright burlesque timing by Jim Covault (who directed the first leg of this co-production at Fort Worth’s Stage West, with this same cast and design team), gets all the chuckles and belly laughs from this playful poke at the puffed up men of science in late 19th century London. These are the Englishmen marching boldly into the far corners of the world, bringing back the heads and horns of exotic animals to adorn their club walls.
This is funny? Actually it’s madcap hilarious most of the time, thanks to the nutty eccentricities of the tweedy club members, although the running joke about the inevitable fate of a pet viper and a retarded guinea pig wears a bit thin by the second act.
All is chummy cigars and brandy at the well-stocked bar of the venerable Explorers Club, a handsome wood paneled hangout, designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, with taxidermied trophy heads and old maps on the walls, and rich Persian rugs underfoot. The old boys are catching up on their latest travels when the scholarly botanist Lucius Fretway (a shyly smitten John-Michael Marrs) proposes that Phyllida Spotte-Hume (a beauteous, intrepid Dana Schultes who doubles credibly as Phyllida’s haughty countess sister) be granted membership in the club.
All harrumphs break loose at the very thought of a woman in their tipsy, tendentious midst. Never mind Phyllida discovered a long lost tribe in her jungle travels and brought back a live member she’s named Luigi (Michael Ulmer, half naked and tensed for action), a strapping, wary savage wearing mostly blue paint and a tooth necklace.
Plead as he does, pining Lucius is butting heads with the timeless tradition that women have their place— and it’s not dishin’ the discoveries with the Explorers Club. Bible anthropologist (say what?) Professor Sloane (a sanctimonious Michael Corolla) insists women are the source of all evil and reptile wrangler Professor Cope (Aaron Roberts, stylish in snakewear) has his own war going with furry rodent protector Professor Walling (a tautly fretful Mark Shum). Enter dashing Harry Percy (a hunky, swaggering Thomas Ward), a handsome explorer thicker than whale blubber who shoulders on in the hope of discovering the east and west poles. (The other two are taken.)
When Harry hankers after Phyllida, there’s not only trouble in Tweedville, but a wildly improbable explosion of events that include an insulted monarch, a crowd of rioting Irishmen, and a superb bit of deception and burlesque that involves a thinly disguised bartender and a suddenly acrobatic bunch of stuffed shirts determined to honor their sacred brandy and cigar ritual. Now here’s the real stuff of western civilization.
Kudos to Babakayode Ipaye, credited as director of physical comedy, and to costume designer Michael Robinson for the scrumptious textures and colors of all the outfits, and especially for the elegant Victorian aviator costume Phyllida wears when she arrives late in the play via airship. Onward and upward, oh women born to struggle—and to get the last laugh.
» Our review at Stage West
» Our feature story about the co-production