Fort Worth — Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club might have the look of a play by Shaw or Barrie—we can almost hear their zingers about women’s rights and colonialism, city life versus primitive—but make no mistake: this regional premiere of the 2013 Off-Broadway hit at Stage West is all about the fun, not the politics. Drinks fly, cobras attack, savages roam, and hearts are won and lost—all within the comfy, clubby walls of a London men’s establishment circa 1879, where the men are men and the women are…uppity.
Benjamin’s light-hearted script offers plenty of laughs and recurring gags in this story of a lady explorer who wants to join the club—13 years before the “real” Royal Geographical Society admitted women in 1892. A crackling, surprisingly athletic cast under Jim Covault’s savvy direction knows just how to let the comedy build from snicker to guffaw, and Babakayode Ipaye’s direction of the script’s built-in extra level of physical comedy pays off in energy and fun—though we’d love to know how many hours the cast spent on the (we can say no more) “drinks” routine.
Explorers Club—a co-production of Stage West and WaterTower Theatre—will run in Fort Worth through January 4 and then move east (lock, stock, and Clare Floyd DeVries’ gorgeously Victorian set) to fill WTT’s post-holiday slot.
It’s a moment of crisis for these adventuresome scientists—and, dare they say it, for the British Empire itself. Yes, their bartender made the worst drinks in London, but now he’s left them high and dry. To make matters worse, acting president Lucius Fretway (John-Michael Marrs) is pushing for a “yes” vote on admitting the club’s first female member, lady explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Dana Schultes). Impossible, says one: “You can’t have a girl around for brandy and cigars!” But Phyllida has earned her explorer’s badge: she’s just back from finding a Lost City in Africa, with a feathered, war-painted “indigenous person” named Luigi (Michael Ulmer) in tow. And they’re going to meet the Queen. Top that, gentlemen.
Marrs is dithery and delightfully moon-eyed as the romantic botanist Fretway, clearly smitten with Phyllida. (He names a coma-inducing vine for her.) His distracted air is a match for Schultes’ Phyllida, all mussy hair and anxious sidelong glances. She’s the New Woman we still see around: smart, gutsy and accomplished—and entirely unsure of herself, all at once. Phyllida is inching her way into this boy’s club, one move at a time, always on alert, but determined. She and Fretway connect almost by accident, in one of the play’s more satisfying moments.
The budding romance is threatened by the ill-timed return of the club’s actual president, the mis-adventuring—and thick as a brick—explorer Harry Percy (Thomas Ward). Ward uses his outdoor voice for the role, and he and Fretway make a funny, squabbling pair, in competition for everything from status to girls. Percy, frequently the sole survivor of his dubious expeditions, is a broad-chested type who blusters that Fretway is too “fiddly” to woo Phyllida—and he’d be happy to take over.
Other clubmen fill out the comedy roster: Professor Cope (Aaron Roberts) is obsessed with snakes and Professor Walling (Mark Shum) with guinea pigs. Can this predator-prey friendship survive—even if Rosie wants Jane for lunch? Bible-toting Professor Sloane (Michael Corolla)—who sees Phyllida and all women as “steeped in sin”—is heading off to tell the Irish Society they’re really ancient Jews. And even the savage Luigi—though his meeting with the Queen isn’t an unqualified success—begins to make a place for himself in the club, showing a surprising knack for emergency medicine and bartending “on the fly.” Ulmer’s prowling, quick-on-the-uptake Luigi is a constantly amusing sideshow: whatever’s happening to the main plot onstage, Luigi has his own one-man comedy act going on.
And it’s a good thing they have him, because by the middle of Act Two, everyone’s going to need a stiff drink.
As farce kicks into overdrive and plot veers out of control, the club’s sacred precincts are invaded by assassins, royal secretaries (Jeff McGee) and evil twins, and a confusing assortment of armies gather below the windows—each with its own particular bone to pick with the Explorers Club. And as if the stage weren’t crowded enough, Beebe (Kyle Igneczi), the missing member of Percy’s polar expedition, might not be as dead (or as eternally British) as we’d been led to believe. Igneczi’s coiled-spring martial-arts routine is a stitch—a Yul Brynner/Bruce Lee mashup—and provides just the jolt of energy the play needs to send it to the finish.
DeVries’ wood-paneled club interior is a handsome affair—stained glass, Latin mottos, mullioned windows, curving bar supported by stone lions—augmented by Lynn Lovett’s props and set décor. It’s all period and perfect, from the stuffed wild animal heads above to the boxes of scientific journals and framed photograph of Queen Victoria on the shelves below. Michael Robinson’s costumes are spot-on for the men (country tweeds give way to swallow-tailed suits) and nicely swishy for Phyllida’s various outings as “the woman” of the piece.
Looking to leave a little of your holiday stress behind? The Explorers Club might be just the ticket—combining an almost commedia strain of flat-out physical fun with the goofy charm of a British TV comedy. Huzzah!