Hen in the fox house
In a week in which women took to the streets to assert their power, Sparks’ new theater company, Restless Artists’ Theatre, opened Explorers Club, Nell Benjamin’s hilarious take on the old refrain: Anything you can do, I can do better.
Her main character, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Ariana Cramer), certainly can. While the distinguished members of the Explorers Club in 1879—all men—were busy studying plants and animals, safe in the comfy lounge of the club’s London headquarters, the intrepid Phyllida risked life and limb to discover the lost city of Pahatlabong, where she encountered a tribe of blue-skinned savages, the NaKong. She learned their language, studied their habits, and even brought one she calls Luigi home to meet the queen.
Then, club member and botanist Lucius Fretway (Cody Canon), approaches the members of this old boys’ club, over brandy and cigars, about approving Phyllida as the club’s first female member.
Professor Cope (James Miller), who is weirdly obsessed with snakes and wears one around his neck at all times, and Professor Walling (Cody McDougall), who studies guinea pigs and—unfortunately—carries one around with him as if to taunt Cope, are open to Lucius’ idea. So is Sir Harry Percy (Tommy Vereen), just back from his ridiculous expedition to discover the “East Pole,” but mostly Percy just relishes the opportunity to ogle a woman.
But archeo-theologist Professor Sloane (Gary Cremeans)—that rare combination of scientist and religious fanatic—isn’t so sure he wants the sinful sex sullying his inner sanctum.
As Phyllida regales the men with tales of the NaKong people—their propensity to eat toad boiled in urine, that they worship a god shaped like a spoon—and has Luigi (Mason Volkes) demonstrate his newfound domestication, the men (except Sloane) are suitably impressed. But when Luigi’s introduction to the queen does not go as planned, silliness, chaos and a case of mistaken identity ensue.
Although forward-thinking in its ideas about women, the show plays havoc with some stereotypes and in that sense isn’t politically correct. The notion of the savage tribe, the other, with its people who behave in foolish ways, could potentially offend the easily offended.
It also feels at times as if the cast is performing more for themselves than the audience—that they’re in on a joke the rest of us missed.
But it’s also a sweet, silly escape, funny from beginning to end.
Volkes’ portrayal of Luigi is comic genius. It’s done almost entirely without dialogue, using gestures, facial expressions and a series of grunts, which manage to hit their comedic targets every time. I hesitate to give away my favorite bit of the show, but the gymnastics involved in Luigi’s bartending scene are like something out of a well-choreographed episode of The Three Stooges, and are just as memorable.
Ultimately, the point is that while Phyllida certainly has earned a spot in the Explorers Club by banging down its door, the club simply may not be good enough for her. Some of the slapstick feels like old-fashioned, ovrblown vaudeville, but it’s always funny. That’s why Explorers Club is definitely a comedy worth discovering.