By Randi Bjornstad
Here’s an interesting plug for “The Explorers Club,” the Very Little Theatre’s latest production that opens on Jan. 13 and runs for three weekends: As “Variety” magazine summed it up, “You don’t have to be British to lose your composure and howl with laughter.”
Knowing the Brits’ facility for comedy, that’s praise indeed. And Chris McVay, who’s directing the VLT’s version, calls award-winning Nell Benjamin’s play, which had its world premiere in 2013 at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City, “an unruly comic gem.”
It’s a cast overloaded with male actors — eight to one, actually — because that’s the way good-old-boy clubs always are, except that normally they’d be eight to zero. But that’s part of the plot when Benjamin’s “The Explorers Club” faces several crises at once, starting with the fact that its bartender is no good at shaking and stirring and the group’s president suddenly has taken a notion to admit (gasp) a woman to the all-male bastion. Not that she’s not qualified — she has discovered a “Lost City” after all — but that doesn’t make her one of the guys.
“What I instantly loved about Nell Benjamin’s play is that she manages to capture both aspects of the ‘Gentleman Explorer phenomenon,’ ” McVay said, in other words shaking the British Empire’s very underpinnings by mixing the sexes in such an unconventional way without even having a decent drink to fall back on.
Benjamin is no stranger to creating great theater. She co-wrote the score to “Legally Blonde, the Musical” with her husband, composer Laurence O’Keefe. She’s also written the book or lyrics for several other shows, among them a takeoff on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” called simply “Pirates!”, “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and “Gotta Dance.”
Although Benjamin’s play is set in 1879 in London, the real Explorers Club actually started in New York City in 1904 with the aims of giving outstanding explorers a place to rub shoulders as well as to financially promote more expeditions.
Some of the group’s more famous members include Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, the first to reach the North Pole in 1909; Roald Amundsen, who got to the South Pole successfully in 1911; Charles Lindbergh, for being first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1927; and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953.
Like every club, the genuine Explorers Club has the equivalent of a secret handshake, in the form of winning the right to carry the official Explorers Club flag on an expedition. To do that, the person proposing the expedition must prove that it has the gravity to produce some important scientific result. Once over that hurdle, the flag has to be taken along, shown visually at every opportunity during the expedition and brought back to the club with a written record — “The Flag Report” — of the expedition.
So far, there apparently are 213 flags that have met the standard, including No. 123, taken by Thor Heyerdahl on the Kon-Tiki, and No. 213, an international scientific mission to the Clipperton Atoll in France and the Revillagigedos Islands of Mexico, led by Canadians Michel LaBrecque and Julie Ouimet.
That’s right, Julie — the real Explorers Club admitted its first women members in 1981. Presumably it also had a decent bartender.
The cast of the VLT version of “The Explorers Club” includes Martha Benson as the One Exceptional Woman, playing Phyllida. The men in the cast are Bill Campbell as Sir Bernard Humphries; Russell Dyball as Lucius Fretway; Michael Teague as Harry Percy; Darius Bunce as Luigi; Kelly Oristano as Bee; and the professors, played by Achilles Massahos, Don Aday and Scott Frazier-Maskeill.
The Explorers Club
When: 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 13-14, 19-21 and 26-28; and 2 p.m. on Jan. 15 and 22; an opening night gala follows the Jan. 13 show
Where: Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene
Tickets: $19, but $15 for senior citizens and students and for everyone at Thursday performances, available online at TheVLT.com or at the box office, 541-344-7751, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday