Review: ‘The Explorers Club’ at Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington

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Patterned Oriental carpets, richly aged dark wood paneling, a tufted leather sofa and a tapestry upholstered chair, an exotic collection of art, curiosities, and taxidermy specimens, and other traditional appointments place us in the world of an exclusive private club in London, 1879. Gentlemen scholars and scientific explorers, in three-piece suits and well-trimmed facial hair, have come together at their prestigious members-only establishment for a guest lecture by an esteemed female colleague, Phyllida Spotte-Hume, about a “Lost City” she discovered. When the young acting president, Lucius Fretway, proposes that she should be considered for membership in the all-male organization, the men’s prejudices surface, their façade of upper-class intellectual refinement is shattered, and preposterous pandemonium ensues. But even more important, why is Luigi—a native of the faraway land, brought back to London by Phyllida–slapping everyone (including the Queen), and where is the club’s inept bartender Roger, who is incapable of mixing a decent cocktail?

Dave Johnson, Karen Peakes, and Daniel Fredrick. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.
Dave Johnson, Karen Peakes, and Daniel Fredrick. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.

Written by Nell Benjamin and directed by Bud Martin, Delaware Theatre Company’s production of The Explorers Club is a silly send-up of Victorian social strictures, perceived British snobbery, and politically-incorrect attitudes towards indigenous cultures and women–the latter even more so than the former–in Benjamin’s convoluted farce, filled with far-flung bits of inanity and anachronisms (including expressions that post-date the period and a reference to For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940). There are eccentric experiments with fast-growing toxic plants, escaping guinea pigs, and a deadly cobra; loopy hypotheses about the existence of an East and West Pole and the population of Ireland being descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel; political turmoil, with a declaration of war against Luigi’s people and a confrontation between British troops and Irish protesters surrounding the building; the unexpected arrival of an identical twin, an Irish assassin, and a trekker left for dead; the invention of a flying machine; and toasts “To Science!” with brandy and psychotropic cigars. It’s all thrown into the mix, and it’s why they’re all in such desperate need of a good bartender!

DTC’s all-star cast of Philadelphia favorites embraces the nonsensical script and its dotty characters with all-out zaniness and obvious enjoyment. Daniel Fredrick as the awkward Lucius is the most normal of the wacky bunch, though inexperienced in love and comically smitten with Karen Peakes’ bright and beautiful Phyllida, who, as it turns out, has a snooty twin sister, the Countess Glamorgan, and a strange penchant for the name Luigi. Matt Tallman and Brian McCann as Professors Cope and Walling display abnormally close attachments to the respective serpent and rodents of their experiments, and Dan Kern, as the stodgy old archaeo-theologist Professor Sloane, leads the fight against admitting Phyllida to the club, incessantly hurling out misogynist insults, and then adding, “No offense.”

Paul L. Nolan, as Sir Bernard Humphries, is a steadfast defender of the Queen, determined to avenge Luigi’s affront to her; Griffin Stanton-Ameisen makes scene-stealing appearances as an irate Irishman and the loony Beebe, who moves across the room unseen in a cape of invisibility; and Harry Smith is a standout as the obnoxious club president and egomaniacal explorer Harry Percy, just returned from an expedition and prone to bravado, as he makes moves on Phyllida, much to the dismay of Lucius. And the always hilarious Dave Johnson as Luigi provides the biggest laughs of the show, with his bright blue body paint, alien customs and language, and rapid-fire bartending skills, in a perfectly timed and controlled comic tour-de-force.

Dave Johnson, Karen Peakes, and Daniel Fredrick. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.
Karen Peakes, Brian McCann, Harry Smith, Daniel Fredrick, Dan Kern, Matt Tallman, and Paul L. Nolan. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.

Alexis Distler’s lavish set, beautifully fitted period-style costumes by Wade Laboissonniere, and wig, hair, and make-up designs by Anne Nesmith, recreate the look and taste of the Victorian era. Expert sound by Michael Hahn clearly captures the characters’ dialogue and the din outside, and fight direction by Michael Cosenza adds further mayhem to the overall madcap proceedings of The Explorers Club.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

3. DTC, THE EXPLORERS CLUB promo image

The Explorers Club plays through Sunday, May 22, 2016, at Delaware Theatre Company – 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, DE. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 594-1100, or purchase them online.