Gentlemen’s clubs, colonial chauvinism and scientific rivalry are the targets of Nell Benjamin’s vigorous farce The Explorers Club, the season finale at Jewel Theater.
Directed by the crafty Art Manke—who dazzled regional audiences with one of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s penultimate hits, Bach at Leipzig—the Jewel production sends up nothing less than the entire British Empire in its Victorian era heyday. The secret weapon here is the most extravagant set filled with expeditionary plunder ever to fill a Santa Cruz stage—zebra rugs, stuffed alligators, velvet chaise lounges, mounted gazelle heads, Turkish rugs. Kudos to designer Tom Buderwitz, and to B. Modern for costumes to match.
Stage plays can be rocket science. Most of Shakespeare. All of Samuel Beckett. Ditto Sam Shepherd. The Explorers Club isn’t, which makes it a perfect spring fling. Here’s the setup: the Explorers Club, devoted to scientific expedition, research and drinking, considers admitting a woman member. She is Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Elinor Gunn), who, having discovered a legendary Lost City, has returned to London with one of its colorful inhabitants, a blue-skinned wild man she calls Luigi (Louis Lotorto). If you’re already thinking Monty Python, you’re very, very close, because the timing, the antics, the physical humor, the outrageous puns, and the sheer inane mayhem of incidents that fill this amuse bouche massages the same funny bone worked senseless by John Cleese and company.
Benjamin’s brisk writing pits the reasonable—botanist Lucius Fretway (Tommy Beck)—against the ridiculous, including Professor Walling (Andrew Davids), whose dim-witted guinea pig Jane is imperiled by the beloved though misunderstood cobra belonging to Professor Cope (Mike Ryan). Add the histrionic archaeo-theologist Professor Sloane (Larry Paulsen), and you have a recipe for stiff upper lip pomposity and slapstick disaster. As the men weigh the option of a female club member, in dashes Harry Percy (Crash Buist), a long-lost club member freshly returned from discovering the “East Pole.” Not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, the Hemingway-esque Percy immediately eyes Phyllida Spotte-Hume, who is also fancied by botanist Walling. Rivalry for the lady explorer’s affections gears up just as we learn that the blue-skinned Luigi is to be presented to Queen Victoria.
Running jokes, sight gags and riotous wordplay rule this bubbly production. It seems the Explorers Club is known to have the worst bartender in all of London, and in his absence Luigi is pressed into service. You can imagine the results. Actually, you can’t—the cocktail antics have to be seen to be believed. No sacred cow or Anglo stereotype is left intact. Once the first act sets up the situations and introduces us to Phyllida’s twin sister, an overwrought Tibetan monk and an angry mob of Irish patriots, the pace goes ballistic.
I’ve probably seen Mike Ryan in a dozen productions, but I cannot remember ever enjoying him quite this much; e.g. his attempts to protect his beloved snake. (“They are not slimy!”) Ryan’s Cope mistakes every conversation for an imagined game of charades in which he cannot guess the correct answer. Silly and sweet, Cope/Ryan is utterly delightful. Late in the play, the wild oration by club member Beebe (Andrew Yabroff), fresh from captivity in a mountaintop monastery and clad in his orange Buddhist robes, left me limp with laughter. This cast is close to flawless, as is Manke’s direction, with some remarkable bits of gymnastic timing achieved by each. But special kudos to Lotorto as the idiot savant wildman who would have been at home in the craziest Marx Brothers routines.
The Explorers Club left opening night audiences laughing out loud, and cheering a thoroughly entertaining production.
‘The Explorers Club,’ written by Nell Benjamin, directed by Art Manke and produced by the Jewel Theatre, runs through June 2 at the Colligan Theater, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz. jeweltheatre.net.