Tag Archives: St. Francis

‘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.

‘A Lady in Waiting’

Robin Hood won’t be the focal point of Theater RED’s world premiere play about his myth. Commissioned from local playwright Liz Shipe, A Lady in Waiting tells a tale of Nottingham, Merry Men and rob-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor, but tells it all through the eyes of Maid Marian’s female servant. The unique point of view inspires a more complex Sherwood Forest, where men aren’t always as noble or villainous as they appear and women seek roles beyond mere bargaining chips. 

At Soulstice Theatre, 3770 Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered at theatrered.com.

7:30 p.m. on Aug. 7 to 23

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‘The Temperamentals’

The gay rights movement may have kicked off in earnest after Stonewall in 1969, but the struggle for equality began much earlier. The Temperamentals, staged by the LGBT theater company Theatrical Tendencies, focuses on the founding of the Mattachine Society, a clandestine, 1950s gay men’s organization that struggled between its dual identities as a social club and an early advocacy group for LGBT rights. The play, however, is more than a docudrama. Writer Jon Marans also weaves in the love story between budding activist Harry Hay and fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. At Soulstice Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis.

8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through March 22

Soulstice turns to comedy with ‘Blithe Spirit’

What could be funnier than watching the spirit of a departed socialite, mistakenly conjured by a séance gone wrong, torment her re-married husband? Noel Coward found the concept so funny that he wrote the play “Blithe Spirit” – possibly his best-known work – around it.

Soulstice Theatre opens its 2012-13 season on Nov. 2 with the phantasmagorical comedy by the legendary gay author and entertainer.

“I have always loved the show,” says Char Manning, who founded the St. Francis theater company and is directing the Coward play. “Soulstice usually gravitates toward drama, but ‘Blithe Spirit’ has always been on my list. When the chance to put it into the season came, I jumped.”

The premise behind this campy comedy of ill manners is simple. Novelist Charles Condomine (Steve Pfisterer), seeking material for his next book, stages a séance in hopes of generating ideas. He invites the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Liz Mistele) to lead the proceedings.

Things don’t quite go as planned, however, and the séance brings back Condomine’s annoying first wife Elvira (Jillian Smith), much to the dismay of his current wife Ruth (Shannon Tyburski). It’s clear that Elvira hasn’t lost her amorous feelings for her spouse, who is the only one who can see her, and that’s something that the button-down Ruth eventually finds intolerable.

Coward’s witty dialogue crackles throughout the play, written in 1941 over a period of just five days while the author was on holiday on the Snowdonia coast in Wales. 

Comedy is notoriously difficult to stage, but Manning is confident that the talents of her cast, the high quality of the writing and her understanding of the material will make “Blithe Spirit” a success. 

“Tempo and timing are the keys to effectively playing comedy,” Manning says. “Noel Coward is brilliant, and if we trust that we’ll be just fine.”

“Blithe Spirit” originally opened in London’s West End, enjoying the longest run of any nonmusical play in British theater up until that time. Coward had by then spent time in New York, and he transported the tougher, faster-paced American style of theater to London’s more genteel stages. This gave the work a fresh quality and added to its popularity.

Coward wrote “Blithe Spirit” at a time during World War II when things were not going well for Britain, and a small protest arose from critics who felt the play made fun of death. However, the entertainment value of the work prevailed – and has endured. The play has been adapted for film, radio and television, and a musical version titled “High Spirits” opened on Broadway in 1964.

Generally considered escapist fair, the play presents themes that might invite reflection, Manning says.

“A part of our mission is to do meaningful theatre,” she says. “It is not always easy to find a comedy that ‘makes meaning,’ but this show has several nuggets. If the audience walks away having some things (to think about) after having spent an evening of laughing and enjoying a night of theatre, I will feel we have been successful.”

On stage

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” runs Nov. 2–17. For tickets and information, go to www.soulsticetheatre.org.