Chicago Theater Review: THE EXPLORER’S CLUB (Windy City Playhouse in Irving Park)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 9, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Doggedly determined to fight yesterday’s battles, Nell Benjamin’s chronic farce The Explorers Club manically mocks the heyday of male British explorers. Fuddy-duddy adventure seekers with aboriginal blood on their hands, these intrepid trekkers did a lot more than find the source of the Nile; they blazed a trail for imperialism, colonialism, racism and misogyny. Benjamin sets this strife in a smugly secure enclave, an exclusive men’s club flatulent with privilege and pomposity. (A more blatant excuse for cheap and easy shots at flagrant stereotypes cannot be imagined.)

01 DSC_0498 Alex Goodrich, Zack Shornick, Cristina Panfilio, Wesley Daniel, Ryan Imhoff, Colin Morgan, Graham Emmons, Dan Rodden, Matt Browning. (c)Michael Brosilow

Scott Davis’s splendidly appointed setting is a male-only sexist sanctuary circa 1880, its grand bar decorated with taxidermy trophies and its chief activity the gender-specific sacrament of “brandy and cigars.” Here Benjamin invents a series of vaudeville sketches (based on heavy-handed character humor) that she wants to pass off as a plot. Accordingly, the dialogue lurches from nonsense from one silly zany to absurdity from the next. We meet woman-hating Sloane, an imbecilic, Bible-quoting “archaeo-theologist” who believes the Irish are the lost tribe of Israel and infuriates them by ordering them to leave for Palestine. An aficionado of guinea pigs, whining Walling falls afoul of snake-loving herpetologist Cope and his cobra “Rosie.” Silly and sophomoric asses straight out of Monty Python or Benny Hill, these creatures can’t stomach the idea of a lady scientist.

02 DSC_0556 Alex Goodrich, Cristina Panfilio. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Then there’s the forced love triangle that propels the contrived action: The club’s acting president, dweebish botanist Lucius, is enamored of the club’s first potential female inductee, Phyllida Spotte-Hume. This pert intruder has newly arrived, bringing muscular jungle boy “Luigi,” a blue-tattooed human specimen from the spoon-worshipping NaKong people who the club intends to civilize in record time. (No luck: When presented to Queen Victoria, the “savage” slaps Her Majesty; it’s his customary greeting but no way to treat the Empress of India.)

06 DSC_0526 Matt Browning, Zack Shornick. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Lucius’s alpha-male rival is Sir Harry Percy, a ruthless explorer, cursed with an impenetrable upper-class slur, who never brings his men home alive. (A sole survivor named Beebe, now a Tibetan terrorist, comes back with a mob of monks; bent on revenge, he’s furious that Harry pissed from their sacred mountain.) Harry’s most recent expedition took him to the “East Pole,” and the “West Pole” will soon be conquered, too. Finally, there’s the twit Humphries, Secretary to the Queen: Furious at Luigi’s insult to his boss, this duffer is intent on conquering the NaKong people for God and Empire.

09 DSC_0390 Ryan Imhoff, Colin Morgan, Alex Goodrich. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Frenetic and forced where Gilbert and Sullivan were clever and whimsical (and too proud to stoop to groaner puns and tedious wordplay like “whim-en”), the frantic action is, like the explorers, all over the map: We get snake attacks, monks who merrily kick the heads off their foes, the death of a guinea pig, the instant invention of a supersonic “airship,” bilious boozing, a native cure for poisonous attacks, the fracas in the palace, and a plant that imitates Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. Could anything be more desperate to please?

11 DSC_0263 Alex Goodrich, Wesley Daniel in The Explorers Club. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Benjamin’s satire aims at the same soft targets as did two far superior predecessors: Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 and Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge. They lampooned imperialist excesses, English xenophobia, institutional sexism, and scientific investigations as a cover for manifest destiny. But, lumbered with a comedy that’s tedious raillery amid stupid skits, superb director David H. Bell can only turn up the mugging meter and the pratfall processor and hope for hilarity from a pre-drunken crowd. Tally low!

10 DSC_0431 Matt Browning, Graham Emmons, Wesley Daniel, Alex Goodrich. Photo by Michael Brosilow

05 DSC_0286 Cristina Panfilio, Ryan Imhoff, Alex Goodrich. Photo by Michael Brosilowphotos by Michael Brosilow

Chapter Two
Windy City Playhouse
3014 W. Irving Park Road
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8;
Sun at different times (check dates)
ends on April 19, 2016
for tickets, call 312-374-3196
or visit Windy City Playhouse

for more Chicago Theater info,
visit Theatre in Chicago


Jason Rohrer February 10, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I wonder why shows like this don’t sound as unnecessary to their creators as they do to me. A surprising lot of playwrights don’t seem to see much theater.

Jennifer Zendell February 13, 2016 at 3:47 pm

I loved the show. It’s hilarious and script well written, the stage gorgeous and the ensemble of actors the best I’ve seen in a long time. The Theater has a great bar and the leather seats big and comfy. It’s a great night out and an amazing play!

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