Victorian England makes me think of depressing Dickensian characters, somber tea ceremonies, and gloomy, sooty skies—not puerile men sipping spirits, smoking cigars, and behaving like characters in a Monty Python sketch. Taproot’s pleasing production of Nell Benjamin’s 2013 comedy is no stodgy period piece. Normally I am not a fan of farces, but The Explorers Club won me over.
In 1879 London, the asshat male adventurers of the Explorers Club argue about adding the assertive and attractive anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Hana Lass) as their newest member—and, controversially, first woman. Though her credentials include finding the Lost City of Pahatlabong—represented by a gibberish-spouting tribesman (Bill Johns) she’s dubbed “Luigi”—that discovery may also propel England into war. Thus we have jokes about British imperialism, domination of the Irish, and sexism.
Aside from Phyllida, these characters are as socially awkward as Amazon programmers. Professor Walling (Rob Martin) drags around his dear “subject,” Jane the guinea pig, while Professor Cope (Solomon Davis) is eternally enveloped in his pet cobra. Harry Percy (Ryan Childers) arrives from a failed attempt to trace the East Pole. Yes, the East Pole.
Under the direction of Karen Lund, this even ensemble expertly executes goofy gags, even if the blocking is often problematic. Strikingly silly is their spontaneously singing a snippet from H.M.S. Pinafore. Lass’ stainless performance couples the spiritedness of Jane Eyre and the accomplishment of Margaret Mead. Johns’ antic, virile savage provides the perfect foil to the other putzy male characters. Conner Neddersen channels David Hyde Pierce as the timid Lucius, hopelessly in love with Phyllida.
This is not a posh production: The clubhouse is trimmed with taxidermy trophies, animal rugs, and African-print furniture that designer Mark Lund might’ve sourced at the bankruptcy sale of Joe and Teresa Giudice. Sarah Burch Gordon’s foppish period costumes help balance the overwhelming faux fur and contribute to the comedy. The science here is no sounder than that of the anti-vaccination crowd, but Benjamin is intent only on giggles in this gentle lampoon.
THE EXPLORERS CLUB Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 781-9707, taproottheatre.org. $15–$40. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat. Ends March 7.