Some of the greatest discoveries of the nineteenth century were made by gentleman explorer-scientists. But Charles Darwin never devised a test for pet guinea-pig intelligence, nor did botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker name a plant that induced first euphoria and then death for a woman he was attracted to. And somehow David Stanley Livingstone confined his explorations to Africa, apparently lacking the gumption and inventiveness to seek out the East Pole.
But the intrepid men of The Explorers Club attempt all these feats and more. Their jovial brandy-and-cigar gatherings, however, are threatened by the entry of Phyllida Spotte-Hume. She has discovered a distant island called Pahatlabong and has brought along a blue-painted native whom she calls Luigi (because that’s the name she gives all her pets) to prove it; now she wants to join the club. Botanist Lucius Fretway is in love with her, and cobra-carrying Professor Cope is intrigued, as is Professor Walling — creator of the guinea-pig experiment. They’re all inclined to vote for her admission. So is dashing Harry Percy, the fellow who claims to have discovered the East Pole and who’s lusting for Phyllida himself, much to Lucius’s discomfort. Unfortunately, archeo-theologist Professor Sloane is a traditionalist: “Your science is adequate,” he tells Phyllida, “but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts.” Sloan believes in putting people in their place: His research has proved to his own satisfaction that the Irish are actually Jews, members of the lost tribes, and should return to Palestine. And why not? the others ponder; after all, the English have been telling the Irish where to live for centuries.
Things get even trickier when Phyllida takes Luigi to the palace, where he, using his tribe’s customary greeting, slaps Queen Victoria across the face. Instantly, the possibility of war arises. Pretty soon, the queen’s guards are massing outside the club, along with dozens of enraged Irishmen.
Author Nell Benjamin, who also co-wrote Legally Blonde, the Musical and Sarah, Plain and Tall, makes delicious fun of the ignorance of the Victorian public about other places and people, the assumption of the ruling class that they had an undisputable right to boss the world around, and the boorish boobs who carried out the country’s colonial policies. But she touches on these things, along with sexism and racism, very lightly. The Explorers Club is first and foremost a farce, a kind of cross between Monty Python and P. G. Wodehouse, brimming with crazy jokes and physical humor, bouncing along at a high, laugh-inducing speed.
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The Lone Tree Arts Center mounts a variety of events, and also produces a play or two each year; the tech and acting in these productions tend to be excellent. The director for The Explorers Club is Randal Myler, much of whose work for the Denver Center Theatre Company went on to success in New York, and he has assembled a crack team. Michael R. Duran designed the detailed, funny and convincing set, and Kevin Copenhaver, who’s created dozens of stellar costumes at the Denver Center over the years, works his magic here. From what I’ve seen in photos, his design for Luigi — that stereotypical cartoon figure — is far more interesting than that of New York’s Luigi. It makes the character look muscular, but also supple and oddly elegant, with elements of both pathos and a kind of intelligence. Of course, actor Christopher Joel Onken gets much — or most — of the credit for that portrayal. The actors are some of the best in the area: Sam Gregory as Lucius; Mark Rubald as the blustering hero-idiot Percy; Stephanie Cozart playing both Phyllida and her aristocratic twin sister; a professorial Brad Bellamy — the only face entirely new to these parts — mourning the untimely death of his last guinea pig, Jane, who’s fallen victim to the cobra owned by Professor Cope (a hilarious Rob Costigan). Colin Alexander is all plummy authority as the Queen’s emissary, Sir Humphries; Erik Sandvold amuses as an Irish assassin who ends up as a corpse coat stand and an explorer turned warlike monk; and Randy Moore is simply perfect as the peevish misogynist Sloane.
It’s a little disappointing to see all this skill and talent go into a show with a puny two-week run. Get your tickets while you can.
The Explorers Club, presented by the Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree. There are shows October 21-24; for tickets, call 720-509-1000 or go to lonetreeartscenter.org.