If you have not yet visited the intimate Workhouse Theatre in Lorton, Virginia, Frank Shutts is currently directing a screwball comedy full of inappropriate giggles. Attitudes are purposefully dated and reflect the misogynistic, xenophobic, colonialist patriarchy of Victorian Great Britain in 1879.
There are also familiar tropes that will leave you laughing. I was reminded of Around the World in 80 Days, Tarzan, and myriad Sherlock Holmes renderings. The humor skewers nationalistic fervor similarly to The Book of Mormon or Borat, while providing a romantic angle that is put on hold while the heroes try to get out of a jam, as in Bringing up Baby. Boy, it’s funny!
Filled with wacky characters, The Explorers Club is a delightful spoof by Nell Benjamin. Better known as a lyricist (Mean Girls, Sarah Plain and Tall, and Dave) or lyricist/composer (Legally Blonde), Benjamin wrote this non-musical comedy in the politically incorrect style of a zany Marx Brothers romp.
Ken and Patti Crowley light the set beautifully. Everything is clearly seen and it all looks natural, which attests to the skills of people who can make it seem effortless. Sound by David Correia is also excellent. The crowd noises outside the club were designed perfectly to support specific laughs in the show. A Tibetan monk has a delightful interplay with unseen crowds that surround the club. The pre-show and intermission music produces a sense of the energetic militaristic pomp of a British circus.
Using a single set, the play takes place entirely in The Explorers Club in London, England in 1879. As designed by MYKE, the set is the main room of the Club, a man-cave with trophies, taxidermy, and weapons on the walls. Hanging above upstage entrances are vines reflecting the botanical experiments of one of the club members. I can’t say that the design fully reflects the masculinity and stuffy wealth of generations of privilege, but I suppose costs for such a look are prohibitive.
Costumes, by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, are spot-on. From polar exploration gear to safari via airship, and formal wear for an introduction to the Queen, the costumes’ cut, color, and textures reflect the characters wearing them. Contrasting with the staid Victorian themes of the club members, former Explorer Beebe (Matthew Randall), who is now a monk, and Luigi (Ricardo Padilla), a blue-painted NaKong tribesman, are dressed in beautifully colorful costumes. The other time we see bright colors is in the costumes of anthropologist Phillida Spotte-Hume (Suzy Alden), whose discovery and study of the NaKong tribe has led to her proposed induction to the Explorers Club.
Alden is terrific as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, winning the audience’s sympathy immediately. Her character battles against stereotypical sexist barriers with scientific brilliance, charm, and impressive patience, as she strives to win over club members. She is not only the lone female acting in the show, her character is turning the Victorian era on its ear by speaking at the all-male Explorer’s Club. What’s that you say? She wants to become a member?! It’s an outrage to Professor Sloane (Richard Fiske), whose religious misogyny can’t abide the idea of a sin-inducing woman in his club. Sloane is the most openly sexist curmudgeon of the bunch, and Fiske’s portrayal is brilliant. Fiske easily steals the prize for grandest whiskers in the cast despite a very nice beard sported by intrepid explorer and macho dimwit, Sir Percy (Kirk Lambert).
Sir Percy is wonderfully egocentric, blithely losing fellow expedition members left and right. Combining Ernest Hemingway and Thor Heyerdahl, Lambert is delightfully dense, as can be gleaned from his exploration for, and supposed discovery of, the East Pole. Other members of the club include Professors Cope (Lou Lehrman) and Walling (Rich Amada), whose nutty focus in their scientific subjects also provides an oddball Abbott and Costello-like pairing. Each of them have marvelous clown-like moments. With the hope of a blooming romance, botanist Lucius Fretway (Adam Wallace) is the nerdy club member hoping to gain club membership for Miss Spott-Hume. The plant that he has named after her doesn’t have quite the same effect as Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, but does have a hilarious impact on the story. The club is visited by Sir Humphries (Christopher Persil), private Secretary to the Queen. Along with Spott-Hume, Humphries plays the straight-man character, and Persil and Alden are both excellent at setting up the laughs.
Directed by Frank Shutts II, this production provides a new take on one of my favorite styles of comedy. Shutts’ staging of physical action adds to the wit of the script and a memorable bit passing drinking glasses produces the tension of impending disaster and the shared release of the audience’s gasped breath. An assemblage of wonderful actors and a strong design team reflect his many years directing in the area.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.