The time? 1879. The place? London, dripping with old-fashioned clothing and speech patterns. The people? Some of the most important (if only to themselves,) and epic explorers of our time. Or just before our time, as it were. Here, we find ourselves welcome in attendence of a meeting of 'The Explorers Club,' the latest presentation from the Pennsylvania Playhouse. Written by Nell Benjamin, this comedy promises to keep you on your toes.
Directed by Gary Boyer, this offering immediately sucks you into the story and the setting, with a realistic club room decorated in everything from tribal masks to world maps to a full wet bar, yet to be attended by a competent bartender. It's a decadent set, immediately setting the scene for the evening.
We are, early on, introduced to various members of the prestigious Explorers Club, a club reserved for only the most elite explorers and discoverers in the land. Here, we meet its members, from the dedicated (if needlessly obsessive) Professor Walling (Brian McDermott) who insists on carrying around his latest guinea pig obsession, to Professor Cope (Bill Mutimer), an herbologist with an unnatural attachment to a snake named Rosie.
The club's members are delightfully eclectic and unique, each delivering to us an interesting character to observe. Brian McDermott and Bill Mutimer are perfectly quirky in their roles, immediately telling the audience that they're in for a one-of-a-kind night.
Another character we are introduced to early on, and who also carries a significant chunk of the show, is club president Lucious Fretway, played delightfully sheepishly by Thomas Rush. Rush delivers a wonderfully strong performance in the role, capturing the shyness of Fretway while hinting at the brilliant explorer resting just beneath the surface. He's easy to root for, and a pleasure to watch.
The show really gets rolling when we're introduced to the only female character in the play, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Syd Stauffer.) In an outrageous turn of events, Club President Fretway (Rush) has proposed the membership of Miss Spotte-Hume, who would become the first female to become a member of The Explorers Club since its beginnings.
Miss Spotte-Hume is proud to have recently discovered and returned from the lost city of Pahatlabong. Phyllida knows the existing members will be resisitant to allowing a woman to join their ranks, so to impress them she has proudly brought along with her a member of the native Pahatlabong tribe, a psuedo-savage she names Luigi (Jeremy Thompson.) Luigi hilariously takes over the role of club bartender as he attempts to blend in, delivering drinks with hilarious gusto.
As Fretway, who is not-so-secretly in love with the bold Miss Spotte-Hume, tries to argue the pros of offering her admission, he is constantly rebutted with other members' points for not allowing women to join today or any other day. There is a ton of humor in the dialouge, which is delivered with a punctuated quickness by each cast member. Thompson does an excellent job evoking laughter as he plays a character without much to say, but with a tremendous amount of physical comedy to deliver.
Though Phylidda is initially both welcomed and resisted by the members of the Club, hilarity ensues when club member Harry Percy (Andrew Beal) returns from a very successful expedition to the East Pole with his own opinions of what should be expected of Phyllida in order to ensure membership. Stauffer's Phyllida takes each challenge in stride, more than matching wit for wit each man who crosses her path. Expertly juggling those who are flirting with her with those who are opposed to her, Stauffer does an admirable job holding her own against a cast of talented males. The story moves quickly, leading to a satisfying and hilarious conclusion.
Although I would have enjoyed a little mood-setting music book-ending the scenes, the set, designed by Brett Oliveria, and the atmosphere are beautifully old-fashioned and English. The stage is cast in shadowy, dark shades that cast an atmosphere of mystery on our clubhouse. The costumes, by Paula Hannam, are very well suited to the time period and serve their characters well. It's an easy show to fall into, allowing you to imagine that you're an observer hanging on the wall of a very real club with very real members.
If you're looking for a quick, witty show about a woman holding her own against a line-up of somewhat caricature-like men, then this show is the one for you. The club members and their lady are all likeable in their own way, no matter who you might agree with. The show is a pleasure to watch, and flies by. The actors work together like a well-oiled maching, clearly well-rehearsed and enjoying presenting the show to the audience. The full cast also includes Zach Goodrich, W. Michael Hollingsworth, and James Vivian.
'The Explorers Club' runs Jan 27-28, Feb 3-5, and Feb 9-12. Call (610)865-1192 or visit www.paplayhouse.org for tickets and more information.