Taproot Theatre's production of Neil Benjamin's continuously funny "The Explorers Club" may very well have you laughing so hard and so often that you may overlook what makes this comedy so rare. It is a piece of perfectly balanced, intelligent nonsense. Set in a Nineteenth Century English club for quasi-scientific explorers, the initiating incident is the arrival of an articulate, adventurous woman, Phyllida, who has discovered an unknown tribe of primitive beings in a most distant part of the world. As a result, there is serious consideration of making her the first female member of the all-male club. The discovery of the tribe, and the fact that she has returned with a blue-skinned, fearsome member of that tribe, whom she has named Luigi. When Luigi is allowed to meet the Queen it does not go well at all and the club and all its members find themselves in great danger. Those external threats lead to a breakdown within the club and the gifting of Luigi with a new vocation, as a bartender. It also leads to the arrival of outsiders, who only make everything worse. It all ends well, but only in the most improbable and somehow inevitable way.
I think the key to what makes all of these privileged men so ridiculously funny is that they take themselves so seriously. The men are convinced that male superiority is the natural order of the world and that their own insignificant accomplishments are ground-breaking. Although they pride themselves as intrepid explorers of the great world, they are actually in command of very little outside this room. They each take themselves so seriously that they cannot see that their proclaimed devotion to "science" is really to anything that will support their self-aggrandizement. Under Karen Lund's capable directorial finesse, every absurd development feels entirely rational, at least to these gentlemen, at least in this place. The pace and incidental emphasis is perfect and the well-balanced ensemble creates an entire world within these self-contained walls. This is as well done a comedy as I've seen in some time. And it gives us a great deal to think about in terms of how much the world has changed, and how little.
Ryan Childers was especially funny as the "legendary" Harry Percy, a man who will never find quite the appreciation from the world that he has for himself. Childers was particularly effective in making Harry seem always in command of, well... actually nothing but his own legend. He was also great in creating a character whose highest ambition was in arriving at a prominence that he in no way deserved. Conner Nedderson was also particularly effective as Lucius Fretwell, who finds himself in love with the intrepid Phyllida Spotte-Hume and with no particular skill in making himself seem worthy of her, or getting her sufficiently interested in him. I loved the way Hana Lass played Phyllida. This was a woman who knew perfectly well the level of her achievement and the frustrations of the social order. She felt like a Victorian woman but without any of the external restraint, only her internal character. It was apparent from the start that this was a woman who knew herself well enough that no one could ever take any of it away. She was dignified, intelligent, confident and attractive in ways that had nothing whatever to do with fashion or society. When she returns as her twin sister, the Countess Glamorgan, we see an entirely different woman, but certainly no less interesting a character.
Solomon Davis, Rob Martin, Robert Gallaher, Andrew Litzky and Kevin Pitman round out the ensemble and each has a well-drawn and distinctive character. Bill Johns did an amazing job of making the savage Luigi into a character who did not speak English, and yet seemed to understand a great deal of what he had in common with these men, much more than they understood about him. Best of all, he never let the character become a cartoon, even at its most outrageous.
"The Explorers Club" is a great, good time and it's also a most interesting and amusing look at how much the world has changed since 1879, and how much it has not. Mark Lund built a beautiful, enclosed world for the set and Sarah Burch Gordon did a fine job on costumes, especially for Phyllida and Glamorgan. Don't go to this expecting any staggering new insights on gender relations or the equality of the sexes, but do go if you just want to enjoy a great entertainment. And I suspect, on the way home, you'll find yourself thinking about several things that did not occupy your mind while you were laughing.
PICTURED ABOVE: Conner Neddersen and Hana Lass in The Explorers Club at Taproot Theatre.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.