“The Explorers Club” by Nell Benjamin has come to Big Dawg Productions at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Walking in the door of the theater immediately a sense of expectation seized over me. Director Holli Saperstein, set designer Woody Stefl and scenic designer Donna Troy have transformed the space into an English gentlemen’s club, circa 1879. I was torn between wanting to order a drink and recline on a fabulous velvet sofa, or head out in search of adventure to bring back more of the décor for the walls. It looked so wonderful and desirable!
I couldn’t blame Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Lupin Byers) for wanting to join! The only problem is The Explorers Club is a male-only club. Mind you, several members don’t actually go out and explore or do anything real. Take Professor Slone (Ken Kienas), an archeo-theologist, who theorizes and lectures about Biblical history. Slone has figured out the lost tribes of Israel are actually the Irish. Professor Cope (Beau Mumford) is a herpetologist. His counterpart is Professor Walling (Josh Bailey), a zoologist who primarily studies guinea pigs—well, just one guinea pig, Jane (Dame Abigail Fluffball). The rest apparently have escaped. But Jane stuck around.
The current president of the club is Lucious Fretwal (Jamey Stone), a botanist. None of these guys actually appear to leave the building except under duress. So, an actual explorer, like Phyllida, who has found a lost city and brought back a warrior from that city (yeah, it is a little like Manteo visiting Queen Elizabeth), whom she has dubbed Luigi (Grant Hedrick), would liven things up a little and put them a lot closer to fulfilling their mission. But, I mean, she’s a woman and all, so it doesn’t matter how much she has accomplished, really.
Enter Harry Percy (Steve Rassin)—no, not Anne Boleyn’s ex, nor Hotspur from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI.” Just a truly inane and incompetent “explorer”—he found the East Pole of the earth—and a much bigger-than-life personality. Since he clearly has the intelligence of a frat boy after a kegger, it is a good thing he has charm and charisma. That’s about all he’s got. Spending time in a room with him is like being caught in a hormonal hurricane with the dumbest good-looking drunk ever. Naturally, he flirts shamelessly with the only female person in the room, even though Stone’s Fretway has clearly fallen for her.
In many ways “The Explorers Club” is like “Noises Off!” meets “Bringing Up Baby.” Grant Hedrick’s Luigi should be the character that upstages everything and everyone on stage. He arrives half-dressed and covered in blue paint. His communication combines physical assault, sweeping performances and riveting non-verbal skills. Yet, the rest of the cast manage to steal attention from him—and that says a lot because it is tough to do. Hedrick is delightful, funny and completely believable as the much put-upon Luigi. In his own strange way, he really cares about Phyllida, more so than she seems to care about him. Perhaps it is the key to Byer’s performance. She still sees Luigi as an exhibit she is responsible for, not as a person. She wants to be an equal at The Explorers Club, but she doesn’t really give Luigi the same credibility. She’s beautiful, brilliant, capable, competent and way out of these bozos’ league. So why does she want their approval?
In a perfect world she and Luigi would never have come back to England at all. But she did, and now Stone’s Fretway is about to have a stroke, he wants her so badly. The image of Stone approaching apoplexy on stage is not new to Wilmington audiences, but he is so convincing, I started to worry he might actually have a medical event before our eyes.
Big Dawg’s latest play is high energy all around, and the interaction between Stone and Rassin provides a lot of explosive moments. There have to be moments of reflection or all that crescendo becomes noise—but the quieter, more reflective moments, especially between Stone and Byers are what make the script palatable.
Also, for moments of restrained calm, Woody Stefl’s Sir Humphries is a necessary point of focus. As the cast unites against his reasoned declaration of war, he gets quieter and calmer (more frightening). And so it makes one question even funnier: “Why do you have a dead Irishman as a coat rack?”
Speaking of crescendo, Mumford’s Cope and Bailey’s Walling are an unending source of laughter and energy. If they are onstage together, there is chemistry and excitement.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Fluffball’s Jane or Crawlaround’s Rosie (the snake). It was a relief when Jane left the storyline—if only Rosie had gone, too. I’m sure Crawlaround has many fine qualities as a performer, but I think he was miscast in the role. He really did not read “snake” very well, at least not from house left. Is Beau holding a mushroom? A severed finger? After the big feeding event, he does not look full or even satisfied. If anything, he looks kind of wooden. Thankfully, the other performers are prepared to carry the load that he is not lifting.
But Hannibal Hills as the Irish assassin could teach both Fluffball and Crawlaround a thing or two about playing dead on stage and holding an audience’s attention while being ostensibly unconscious. He reappears very quickly as Beebe—one of the members of Harry Percy’s party that was left for dead on an expedition. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any crazier (nor could there possibly be another drink gag!), Hills ups the ante again.
It is a night of great laughs and deep philosophical questions (and left me with a mild concern that Saperstein might be slipping the cast speed in their drinks!). Yet, it is a wonderful night of entertainment and art, marked by fabulous performances. Anyone trying to decide where to invest their hard-earned money with a theatre ticket should look no further than “The Explorers Club.” It is priceless.