Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by North Shore Camera Club
If you are looking for political correctness, you will be forgiven for not venturing out to see Citadel Theatre’s new production of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club. If, on the other hand, your goal for the evening is to have a good time and laugh a lot, you’ll do yourself a favor by heading off to Lake Forest to see this cleverly written, well executed farce.
Directed by frequent Citadel director Robert D. Estrin and featuring a talented cast of players in broad, exaggerated farcical mode, The Explorers Club takes us to a late 19th Century London clubhouse dedicated to science and exploration of all kinds. The intrepid members of the club are a varied lot. Nate Strain is Lucius, a botanist who has found a new species of plant with surprising properties; Jacob Fjare is Cope, a herpetologist (that’s a studier of snakes to those who are not scientists); Erik Pearson is Walling, a zoologist currently studying guinea pigs; Bob Sanders is Sloan, a Bible-thumping “archeo-theologist” who believes that the Irish are the Lost Tribes of Israel; and Guy Wicke is Percy, an explorer who believes he has discovered the East Pole.
Enter Elizabeth Rude as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, a female explorer (gasp!) who has recently found a legendary Lost City and wishes to join the club, sponsored by Lucius, who has fallen for her. She has brought back with her one of the tribesmen, whom she calls Luigi (because she calls every lost thing she finds Luigi). Played by Frank Gasparro in blue body paint striped tribally, Luigi is a politically incorrect scene-stealer. As the “feral man” explores the Explorers Club while others talk, it’s difficult to keep your eyes off of him. Estrin has him wandering (in a curiously Neanderthal posture) about the place, playing with everything he can find and clearly enjoying his new surroundings. Gasparro is having so much fun that he keeps us laughing throughout a too-efficient expository first act that features less verbal humor than plot set-up and (other than Luigi) very little physical humor at all. As it ends, in fact, an officious Queen’s Secretary (pompously played by Edward Kuffert) is threatening to wipe out the Lost City with the British army after Luigi slapped the Queen. (Don’t ask; see the show to understand.)
That is changed abruptly after intermission. Starting with a visual gag (Lucius’s new plant has grown so much overnight that Percy needs a machete to cut through it), this act features slapstick, Abbott and Costello style verbal exchanges, tons of action, and even (breaking with tradition) new characters (two of whom are played by Citadel Artistic Director Scott Phelps). In addition, two scientists who were friends are now at each other’s throats due to a different incident at the palace, the Irish and the Queen’s Guard are assaulting each other for the right to assault the clubhouse (which is miraculously free from harm during all of this assaulting), and Phyllida has disappeared from London. One of the physical gags of this act, repeated several times, is undeniably both hilarious and very impressive. (You’ll know it when you see it.) And the characters’ various arcs are satisfactorily resolved.
Luigi, though he is intelligent, is seriously politically incorrect from his gait to his language to his repeated actions to his hilarious explorations. No real effort is made to mask this; if you are easily offended, stay away. Another possible issue is the treatment of women, though that can be explained as a subtle jab at the truth of its time. Some of the dialogue about Phyllida would bring lawsuits today, not to mention her potential exclusion from the club.
Though Lucius is called “effeminate” by hyper-masculine but clearly stupid Percy, Strain does not give in to that easy stereotype, giving him honest emotions and making him a believable hero for the story. Wicke too resists the temptation to overplay his character’s flaws and give him (despite them) some comic dignity. Pearson and Fjare make a great pair: scientists who are not supposed to get along (because, as we are told repeatedly, one studies the carnivore and one studies the prey) but are best friends. Pearson’s bits with the guinea pig are subtle yet wonderful, and Fjare, wearing a rubber cobra around his neck for the whole show, is great as the club’s most pathetic member. Sanders and Kuffert both are in full-on stodgy British mode, and both handle it well. Rude is fun as both Phyllida and her twin, though I didn’t think she had any real chemistry with Strain, who should be her love interest. Phelps, letting anger act as sole motivation for both of his characters, has some fun chewing the scenery, though both roles are very similar (excluding the accent of the “Irish Assassin”).
This is all played out on one the the finest small theatre sets you’ll want to see. Scenic Designer José Manuel Díaz-Soto has created a first-rate clubhouse featuring wood trim everywhere, and Properties Manager Mark Holley has filled it with enough artifacts to keep audience members busy during intermission. (Among them: an alligator skull, several rifles, a framed snake skeleton, models of the Monitor and Merrimack, and a large portrait of Queen Victoria.) Costume Designer Paul Kim also went to town: all of these people look perfect for their roles and era.
It may not be the most PC play of the year, but The Explorers Club will definitely make you laugh, and that’s what you go to see farces for isn’t it?
The Explorers Club is a Citadel Theatre production now playing at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest through May 27. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Citadel Theatre.