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Theater review: The Explorer's Club is a period comedy treat

Woman scientist? Gasp!

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“There is nothing wrong with women…. inherently.” Indeed.

That's from playwright Nell Benjamin's (Legally Blonde the Musical) The Explorer's Club, which The Village Rep is performing this month at Woolfe Street Playhouse. Keely Enright (a woman) once again proves her prowess as director. Mary Fishburne (also a woman) and Christian Persico (not a woman) — Charleston’s own Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart — have earned the right to tread any boards they choose. The trifecta is unstoppable.

Persico plays Lucius, the acting president of The Explorer’s Club in 1879 London. As the rival to the National Geographic Society, this club of scientific men seeks funding and praise for its various accomplishments. Lucius, the botanist in the group, has discovered a wonderful plant and a wonderful female scientist. Hoping to impress the lovely and bright Phillida, smartly portrayed by Fishburne, he names the plant after her and tries to persuade the other men to allow her into the club as its first female member. The plant causes everything from euphoria to death, and Phillida can’t decide if she’s flattered or insulted. Lucius is so “Jimmy-Stewart-Shy-Self-Deprecating” that one can only be flattered. So she is.

Other club members include the unlikely BFFs Cope (Robbie Thomas), the snake handler; Walling (Dave Reinwald), the guinea pig wrangler; “archaeo-theologist” Sloane (Jay Danner); and pompous Harry Percy (Noah Smith).

Thomas and Reinwald are darling as the nerdiest guys in class, proud not only of their scientific discoveries but also of their strong friendship. Sloane, bless his heart, believes he has found the Lost Tribes of Israel — in Ireland! “Have you noticed how many people in Ireland are named ‘Dan’?”

Percy, having lost every member of his trekking team, has discovered the East Pole. Bully for him. All of these actors are so skilled in their craft that they flesh out real personalities in what could otherwise be played as one-dimensional caricatures. They have lives, these men: strange, nerdy lives, but lives nonetheless. Thank you, good sirs.

Phillida’s crowning scientific achievement is the discovery of the NaKong Tribe of the Lost City of Pahatlabong: a “vicious” and “savage” people whose god is shaped like a spoon. As Phillida arrived with little more than a spoon, she was able to command respect and to bring home a member of the tribe. This native, Luigi (she names all her “pets” Luigi), is portrayed by Patrick Arnheim, who has a difficult role that calls for plenty of stage time with very few lines. Arnheim succeeds: all curiosity with no mugging. Nearly naked and blue, Luigi is always present, observing everything, learning, assimilating (sort of), and staying out of the way.

Eventually, to save him from the Queen’s authorities (Nat Jones in a thoroughly convincing turn as a member of the Queen’s staff, Humphries), Luigi is disguised as the club’s bartender. Luigi’s bartending styles include a wonderful “delivery” method that requires a beautifully choreographed acrobatic scene between Arnheim and Persico. Persico’s gymnastics are film-worthy and earned a round of applause.

Village Rep regular Bronson Tayler charms audiences once again as Beebe, the man who can finally put blustery Percy in his place. Tayler’s portrayal is a welcome change in tempo and absolutely precise, all the way down to his sock garters.

Julie Ziff (another woman) is responsible for the lush set and costumes. The set, packed with busy Victorian décor, displays an attention to detail that is mind-boggling. Every surface has been touched and the visual meal alone is worth the price of admission.

For a fun night of theatre, head on over to The Explorer’s Club. Man or woman, I bet they let you in.

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