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‘Explorers Club’ explodes gender stereotypes

Phyllida Spotte-Hume is a female anthropologist of the first degree and an adventurer who has discovered a lost civilization armed with little more than her intelligence and a spoon. She now faces her greatest challenge — convincing a stodgy British scientific society that it’s OK to have a woman in the house.

But then that’s 1879 for you.

Such is the stuff of which The Explorers Club, which opens Soulstice Theatre’s 2015–16 season, is made. The farce by author Nell Benjamin (who earned a 2007 Tony Award nomination as co-author of the musical Legally Blonde) skewers Victorian-era social mores with an eye toward turning the era’s gender politics on its head. 

“Science is as science does,” the club’s members seem to say, but admitting someone from the “weaker” sex into membership simply sets the Explorers on a road to ruin. It’s the goal of Spotte-Hume (Amber Smith) and her sponsor, club president Lucius Fretway (Bryan Quinn), to set the odd lot of scientific eccentrics straight, in a most amusing fashion, according to director Jillian Smith.

“The Explorers Club is a light farce at heart, with wonderfully witty and intellectual humor throughout,” says Smith, who also serves as the theater company’s president and artistic director. “The beauty of this particular piece, I think, is that nothing is ‘dumbed down’ for an audience. We expect our patrons to watch intently and stay alert. There’s always something afoot.”

This story is far from unrepentant man-bashing, Smith says, given that characters on both sides of the gender divide have flaws. Those flaws, along with a fairly absurd premise clothed in a rich historical context, provide grist for the humor that runs blithely throughout the narrative.

“The author’s writing is tight, the humor clever and smart,” Smith says of Benjamin, who was a year ahead of her at Harvard University. “Unlike a lot of popular farces, this one isn’t all about doors slamming or mistaken understanding. The best comedic moments unfold when these characters are simply interacting face to face.”

Part of that interaction centers on a NaKong tribesman whom Spotte-Hume has nicknamed “Luigi” (Phil Sepanski) and has brought with her to The Explorers Club to support her discoveries. In a scenario driven by its opposition to gender bias, Smith has worked hard to keep Luigi from becoming a racial and cultural cartoon stereotype.

“(Stepanski) and I worked closely to develop a background for his character that is rooted in an understanding of modern tribal cultures,” Smith says. “From his costume design to his presentation of the NaKong language to the physicality he employs onstage, each element offers a true, unique character that is rich with appreciation and sensitivity to indigenous peoples around the globe.”

That doesn’t keep Luigi from contributing to the play’s funny bits. He’s a rich contrast to the high-collared buttoned-up club members, who manifest a social primitivism of their own in the way they treat women scientists, Smith says.

“I think Phyllida’s character is typical of female scientists of the period, who were considered women first and scientists second, if at all,” Smith says. “Victorian-era anthropologist Mary Kingsley is considered one of the 10 greatest British explorers ever and yet even she was widely seen as needing to be a dutiful daughter first in caring for her parents.”

The play, of course, does a lot to deconstruct historical constraints while treading its humor on a set that Smith says is remarkable for its wealth of cultural bric-a-brac and historic detail, something in which she take obvious delight.

“This is my wheelhouse!” says Smith, who studied biological anthropology and archeology in college. “I always had a passion for antiquities, fossils and other tchotchkes of historical relevance. Researching those kinds of articles and finding ways to incorporate them into Mark Schuster’s wonderful set has been a really fun adventure.”

Smith says that all these various elements are what in her mind will make The Explorers Club appeal to a wide-ranging audience.

“I just love how smart it is,” Smith says. “I love how it dismantles the gender and Western-centric biases of the time in a most systematic and undeniable way. I love the way it threads real science into the dialogue. It’s so much fun.”

ON STAGE 

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club runs Nov. 6-21 at the company’s playhouse at 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. For tickets, call 414-481-2100 or visit soulsticetheatre.org.

Soulstice Theatre’s New Season

Nell Benjamin’s farce The Explorers Club launches the 2015–16 season for Soulstice Theatre. Upcoming shows continue to illustrate the company’s broad range of topics and interests.

With the help of Milwaukee playwright Liz Shipe, Soulstice welcomes the holiday season with Upon a Midnight Clear. Shipe’s whimsical look at Jack Frost’s life as a human being and whether or not he should remain human to be with the woman he loves runs Dec. 4-19.

The company welcomes the new year with Starlings, a play by local playwright Ben Parman that claims to be “too Christian for the gay demographic and too gay for the Christian demographic.” Parman’s fast, funny and profound look at the tensions between religion and contemporary society runs Jan. 14-30.

The unlikely romance between an Irish fisherman and a woman from Liverpool he’s seen only once before forms the narrative for Sea Marks. Written by actor Gardiner McKay, the bittersweet romance takes the stage March 4-20.

The season closes with a lush musical version of The Secret Garden, an updated version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of little orphan Mary Lennox. Discover if Mary finds the family she needs — and the family she finds needs her — June 10-25.