The Explorers Club, by Nell Benjamin. Delaware Theater Company, 2016.
The Explorers Club provides zany fun. The plot is rooted in an examination of British colonialism and sexism in the Victorian era, but playwright Nell Benjamin chose to go for physical humor instead of scholarly dissertation.
Benjamin is best known as the co-author of lyrics and music for Legally Blonde, with her husband, Laurence O’Keefe.
To the members of the fictitious Explorers Club, women were mysterious beasts. When one of the members invites the anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume to speak at one of the meetings, she’s greeted with hostility.
The woman brings along a specimen of the indigenous people of the NaKong Tribe of the Lost City of Pahatlabong. She calls the blue-skinned man Luigi, and presents him as a “noble savage.” Soon he’s hired as a replacement bartender in the Explorer’s Club and he supplies wacky visual humor, especially in the way he mixes drinks and slides them down the bar towards the members.
Jan Morris wrote seriously about the subject in Pax Britannica: The Climax of Empire (1968), an in-depth look at all aspects of the British Empire around the time of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, examining the technology, the wars and the attitudes prevailing within the most far-flung empire in the history of the world. Morris described how the India Mutiny started because of a rumor that new cartridges used in the Indian regiments were greased with pig and cow fat, and therefore deeply offensive to Muslim and Hindu beliefs.
This knowledge is helpful, but not at all necessary for enjoying the show.
Benjamin’s script scores points for gender equality, with humor instead of preaching. Professor Cope is a herpetologist who carries around a poisonous cobra, Professor Walling is a zoologist who taught guinea pigs to open the latches on their cages and now he can’t find them. Professor Sloane is said to be an archeo-theologist and has tracked the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Ireland. When Sloane insists that the Irish be relocated to Palestine, he triggers a riot.
Dave Johnson stands out as Luigi, with his body paint and imaginary language. Paul L. Nolan, Daniel Fredrick, Harry Smith, Dan Kern, Matt Tallman and Brian McCann are hilarious club members. Karen Peakes, as Phyllida and her twin sister, does not project as well as the men.
This production has one of the most stunning sets in recent memory, by Alexis Distler — with burled wood, stuffed animals, shrunken heads, enormous tusks, hanging plants and an upright stuffed bear.
Bud Martin directed with expert presentation of sight gags.
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