Review: ‘The Explorers Club’ at Prologue Theatre

New companies, and especially hybrid troupes whose members have a variety of artistic origins and talents, are a vital part of DC’s theatrical ecosystem. The past few years have seen the launch of some truly exciting, physically astute companies, and Prologue Theatre has just emerged on the scene.

L-R: Matthew Pauli (Professor Sloane), Danny Cackley (Lucius Fretway), Harrison Smith (Professor Walling), Zach Brewster-Geisz (Sir Bernard Humphries), Ryan Tumulty (Professor Cope), Jack Novak (Beebe), and Nicklas Aliff (Harry Percy) in 'The Explorers Club' by Prologue Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
L-R: Matthew Pauli (Professor Sloane), Danny Cackley (Lucius Fretway), Harrison Smith (Professor Walling), Zach Brewster-Geisz (Sir Bernard Humphries), Ryan Tumulty (Professor Cope), Jack Novak (Beebe), and Nicklas Aliff (Harry Percy) in ‘The Explorers Club’ by Prologue Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Wrapping up Prologue’s first season is their production of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club, a perfect summer romp for those with a taste for farce and some of the oldest stereotypes and schtick in the book. Directors/co-conspirators Noah Schaefer and Jason Tamborini have assembled a fine, talented cast that is shameless in its pursuit of the belly-laugh—and in the best possible way.

We are somewhere in London, in one of those classic, wood-paneled, leather-upholstered club rooms, and in the late Victorian era—an illusion maintained through some fine dialect work, thanks to Solas Nua’s Rex Daugherty. With a pair of massive tusks/horns/whatever hanging over the bar, you kinda sense that this club is on the skids. The fact that the club’s bartender (thankfully absent) can’t fix a drink to save his soul doesn’t help much either…

Enter the misfits of the Explorers Club, with specialties that are as absurd as they are “serious.” There is a certain Professor Cope (Ryan Tumulty, at his histrionic best) in possession of a pet poisonous serpent which he keeps wrapped around his neck, while his BFF Professor Walling (the hilariously needy Harrison Smith) is mad for an ingenious guinea pig. This friendship is doomed, of course, for reasons best seen to be believed.

The real problem here is that one of the club’s members—the lovelorn botanist, Lucius Fretway, played with pathetic appeal by Danny Cackley—wants to induct a female into this bastion of male mediocrity. The woman in question, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (yeah, the names are appropriately bizarre), has discovered a lost city and a native culture of blue-hued savages, one of whom she has brought back to London with her. Lucius, meanwhile, finds he has competition for Phyllida’s attentions in the hilariously blustery Harry Percy (the priceless Nicklas Aliff), whose Teddy Roosevelt-sized ego is in stark contrast to his actual achievements.

Anna DiGiovanni’s Phyllida is every inch the Victorian heroine, upright, sharp as a knife and proud, while her—ahem—exhibit, nicknamed Luigi (the frenetic and utterly blue Christopher Herring) manages to create chaos with his manners.

Anna DiGiovanni (Phyllida Spotte-Hume) & Christopher Herring (Luigi) in 'The Explorers Club' by Prologue Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Anna DiGiovanni (Phyllida Spotte-Hume) & Christopher Herring (Luigi) in ‘The Explorers Club’ by Prologue Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

There is a lot of great slapstick here, and although a number of the jokes seem dated (Ms. Benjamin’s forté is as a lyricist for Broadway musicals, and it shows), Tamborini and Schaefer have made a point of including some brilliant moments of physical humor. When our blue friend Luigi reveals his true talents to the assembled Club, the stage is set for a sequence that is half the reason to see this show. No spoilers here—just suffice it to say that it’s performed with ease and precision by the entire assembled cast, and should get applause from every sentient audience member for the rest of the show’s run.

This competes for our comedic attention with the entrance of Beebe, an explorer abandoned in the Himalayas returning to the Club with a burning lust for revenge. As Beebe, Jack Novak steals the show—this takes effort, given the quality of the cast—in a bravura performance that brings to mind David Hyde Pierce in his prime (OK, so he’s still in his prime; but hey, you get the idea).

The Explorers Club features a truly stunning, tony set designed by JD Madsen, and seamless, period-appropriate musical motifs provided by Neil McFadden. Sydney Moore’s costumes are as lavish or button-down as required (entirely too much fun is had with Luigi’s getup), and William D’Eugenio’s lights are more than adequate to their task.

Prologue Theatre also hosts after-show discussions, in an earnest effort to use their work as a springboard for more serious conversations about contemporary issues. It might require a slight adjustment to go from a farcical piece like The Explorers Club to more sober concerns, but it’s well worth the trip to NE Washington and the Gallaudet University campus.

These days, we all need a cheap laugh; this is just what the doctor ordered, in our utterly mad, dysfunctional capital city.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

The Explorers Club, presented by Prologue Theatre, runs through August 4, 2019, at the Eastman Studio Theatre on the campus of Gallaudet College – enter at the stoplight at 8th St. and Florida Avenue, NE. For tickets and directions, go online.

Matthew Pauli, Professor Sloane; Zach Brewster-Geisz, Sir Bernard Humphries; Cindy Jacobs, Properties Design; Emily Sucher, Intimacy Choreographer