The Explorers Club

 By Philip Pearce

THE EXPLORERS CLUB, which just began a four weeks’ run in Jewel Theatre’s production in Santa Cruz, takes a jokey look at a dauntless lady anthropologist’s frontal attack on a stuffy mid-Victorian London men’s club.

If that suggests some hard-hitting social commentary, think again. Author Nell Benjamin never lets Phyllida Spotte-Hume’s feminist battle get in the way of the laughs, some of which work, others not. And the cool and lovely Elinor Gunn plays right along in assured comic style.

Phyllida has applied for membership in the club based on the NaKong tribes she has studied and written up after finding, tucked away somewhere in the far reaches of the Empire, the fabled lost city of Pahatlabong.

To prove she isn’t talking through her modish Victorian bonnet, she introduces to the club a hairy, blue-skinned NaKong native she has christened Luigi. Acted with untiring gusto by small, lithe Louis Lotorto, Luigi starts off all body-paint and gibberish, but he soon has unwittingly set off a diplomatic and military crisis between Whitehall and Pahatlabong by smacking H.M. Queen Victoria in the jaw. How and why this happens you’ll only know if you see the show. 

A quintet of smug males set to work debating Phyllida’s suitability for Explorers Club membership. They are not so much examples of dangerous male chauvinism as leftover caricatures of Brit pomposity you’ve seen in stage or screen productions from Gilbert and Sullivan to Fawlty Towers.

Eager to promote a new openness to Explorers Club gender equality is well-meaning, bookish horticulturist Lucius Fretway, but that’s mainly because he nurses a secret pash for the attractive Phyllida. Played with a touching, owl-eyed determination by Tommy Beck, he evolves, you won’t be too surprised to learn, from a timid nerd to a hot-blooded lover.

A pair of his club colleagues are lifelong chums. Professor Cope (a wide-eyed and confused Mike Ryan) wears a beloved cobra named Rosie as a necklace, and his pal Professor Walling (played by Andrew Davids, all prim propriety till he gets riled) carries a caged lab guinea pig named Jane wherever he goes. Not too hard to guess what a hungry Rosie and a liberated Jane are going to do to the in-house friendship of their respective keepers. 

Into the mix bursts Harry Percy, who shares the name of a Shakespeare anti-hero, and is played by Crash Buist as a scholar—strong in body, bravado and bombast, but weak in intellect. Fresh from an eventful world voyage, Harry claims to have discovered the East Pole. Hey, if there’s a North one and a South one, simple geography says there’s bound to be … Well, you get the idea.

The toughest academic nut to crack by far is the anti-feminist Professor Sloane, who calls himself an “arche-theologist” and recoils at the least physical contact with a woman. A fidgety and energetic Larry Paulsen plays him to the hilt in clerical black and explosions of spidery irritation. Convinced that the long-lost tribes of Israel listed in the Book of Exodus have become the fractious clans of nineteenth century Ireland, he tells the London Irish Society they’re all Jews and must emigrate to Israel and earns himself street riots and a barrage of raw potatoes.  

One by one, these academic obsessions of the five club members are worked through in ways that are occasionally funny and bizarre, sometimes just bizarre.

What carried this production for me was neither its efforts at verbal wit nor its parade of exaggerated religious and political attitudes, but its visual comedy.

Tom Buderwitz’s set is a masterpiece of controlled male aggression, its walls spiked with the horns and snouts of slaughtered animals guarded, stage right, by a life-sized stuffed alligator and, stage left, by a rangy gray ostrich who stares balefully into the audience throughout the play.   

The ups and downs of romance with Phyllida are expressed in visual changes to the plant species Lucius Fretway keeps dotted around the club. In ordinary times, they’re just plants in pots. But when things are looking up for Lucius, patrons part their way into the bar through rainforest of lush greenery and blossom, only to face dry leaves and dead petals drooping from their pots when things are turning bad.  

Best of all, tucked into a second act overloaded with complicated plot points, is the evening’s top comedy sequence. Nothing to do with the hopes and fears of Pyllida or the Explorers Club, it happens because the resourceful Luigi, having bopped the Queen of England, escapes arrest by Sir Bernard Humphries (Rolf Saxon) and the Royal Guards by hurriedly replacing the Explorers Club’s incompetent bartender. A quick study, Luigi in no time is hurling cocktails along the bar and across the lounge like a kid shooting pellets from a slingshot. Club members, to a man, blithely catch and drink their airborne libations. It’s a moment of gorgeous visual comedy worthy of Laurel and Hardy and well worth the price of admission. 

Thanks to fast-paced direction by Art Manke and the brisk, athletic commitment of a top-flight cast, The Explorers Club weighs in as an engaging if unchallenging two hours of fun on the Colligan Theater stage.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo