The meetings of The Explorer’s Club always begin (as meetings always should) with a song and a toast: “To science!” Of course, for these gentlemen, “science” effectively means “a man’s god-given prerogative to make things up and state them authoritatively.” And that’s all for the better in this clever, silly comedy currently in production at Soulstice Theatre. For The Explorer’s Club is the funniest show this town has seen since the Milwaukee Rep’s hilarious Peter and the Starcatchers.
It’s London, 1879: Victoria is on the throne, Britannia rules the waves, and the world is an oyster for well-born men of leisure who take an interest in this newfangled science business. Nobody has ever been more privileged than Victorian men of leisure, and this play wrings its comedy from their ridiculousness while affectionately gliding along on their indisputable, insufferable charm. The play is so lighthearted, the characters seem to be animated cartoons; the setting is the steampunk golly-wow world of Tintin, Jules Verne, and old B adventure movies; the comedy is right out of Monty Python and The Black Adder. It’s a world where you mention a person’s name and they immediately make an entrance; where a snakebite can be instantly cured by vigorous sucking and application of a native remedy; where an improvised airship can fly to a lost city and back in one night (well, you wouldn’t build a slow airship), and a blue-painted native can pass for the club bartender by simply donning a jacket.
Obviously, playwright Nell Benjamin has a splendid sense of farce, and even though she sometimes goes for low-hanging comic fruit while she’s setting up her plot in the first act, it totally pays off in act two, when all the pieces she’s carefully assembled touch off a Rube Goldberg chain of events like the old plastic “Mousetrap” game was supposed to do (but never did). The psychology is sheer comic book: each character has a handful of traits that defines him or her—but they interact like well-tooled gears to grind the play to its most satisfactory conclusion. It’s an actor’s show to run with, and this cast makes a tidy feast out of every comedic morsel. Director Jillian Smith made her job easier by assembling a crew of brilliant funnymen, each one so well-cast, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these oddball adventurers. Wisely, they play their characters earnestly rather than goofing on them, which makes them endearing and sympathetic.
Joe Krapf and Al Oldham play a couple of goofy savants; one wears a newly-discovered poisonous snake draped nonchalantly around his neck; the other performs experiments testing the intelligence of guinea pigs: they titter and gossip like a couple of schoolgirls, and both manage somehow to take on the essence of the creatures they study. As a biblical scholar convinced that the Irish people are descended from the lost tribes of Israel (yes, that was an actual thing), David Ferrie manages to say incredibly bigoted things without seeming an utter nasty. Matthew J. Patton is a wonderfully clueless adventurer who, having lost every man on his expedition to the Himalayas, is now looking for backing to discover the West Pole (he’s already found the East one). With a bro-ish attitude toward women, he’s always spouting brilliantly silly aphorisms like “Women don’t reason, they have whims—that’s why they’re called ‘women.'” He insists on competing with his fellow, a rather shy botanist, played with mischievous charm by Bryan Quinn, for the attentions of a pretty lady explorer who is seeking admission to this boy’s club. As the brightest flame in the room, with the wonderful name of Phyllida Spotte-Hume, Amber Smith is sometimes frustrated, but never condescending to the dimmer lights around her; the nominal heroine, she’s like a very resourceful Margaret Dumont surrounded by Grouchos. Meanwhile, Phil Stepanski, as a tribesman from the lost city of Pahatlabong, brings great physical humor to his fish-out-of-water situation, without stealing the scenes—no small feat when you’re covered with blue tribal body paint. It’s quite a sight to see him skimming highballs off the bar, to be casually caught in midair by the delighted explorers. Robert Zimmerman, as Queen Victoria’s personal secretary, plays it relatively straight, but his larger-than life persona and the large white buttons on his striped vest betray that he’s a clown after all. And David Sapiro brings it all to a surprise appearance that it would be a complete spoiler to reveal.
This is true ensemble work, as well-balanced as some elaborate Victorian engine with gleaming, whizzing parts. Everyone looks like they’ve had a wonderful time putting this show together, and it’s just as much fun for us to watch. Kudos to all, huzzah for science, God save the Queen, and cigars and brandy for everyone!
Soulstice Theatre presents
The Explorers Club
by Nell Benjamin
directed by Jillian Smith
Playing through November 21
7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee, November 15 at 2:00 p.m.
3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave.
Tickets: $21, Senior/Student/Vet $19