The Column Online



by Nell Benjamin

WaterTower Theatre

Directed by Jim Covault
Director of Physical Comedy – Babakayode Ipaye
Stage Manager – Peggy Kruger-O’Brien
Set Design – Clare Floyd Devries
Lighting Design – Bryant Yeager
Sound Design – Kellen Voss
Costume Supervisor – Michael Robinson
Properties and Set Décor – Lynn Lovett

John-Michael Marrs – Lucius Fretway
Aaron Roberts – Professor Cope
Mark Shum – Professor Walling
Michael Corolla – Professor Sloane
Dana Schultes –P hyllida Spotte-Hume, Countess Glamorgan
Michael Ulmer –Luigi
Thomas Ward – Harry Percy
Jeff Mcgee – Sir Bernard Humphries
Kyle Igneczi – Beebe, Irish Assassin

Reviewed Performance: 1/19/2015

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

For a few weeks WaterTower Theatre will be the image of London. The Explorers Club is a 19th-century London Gentleman’s club that caters to scientists and worldwide explorers. The all-male membership is interested in sharing and defending their particular scientific ideas, some of which aren’t truly accurate, but life is getting a bit more complex as a new explorer addresses the club and seeks membership. The problem is the explorer is a woman. Oh, the humanity!

The Explorers Club is also a new play by American playwright, Nell Benjamin, with a wicked comedy of irony, misunderstanding, and witty, though misguided pronouncements by members in the club. Their motto: “To Science!” Harry Percy (Thomas Ward) searches for the East Pole, since others found the North and South Poles already. Professor Sloane (Michael Corolla) created a new archeology based on biblical sources, which drove him to discover that Irish people are really the lost Jews of Israel who need to move back to Palestine. The Irish, of course, are not keen on this idea. It could start a war! Professor Cope (Aaron Roberts) has a deadly cobra from his travels and wears it like a pet python. And his closest friend, Professor Walling (Mark Shum) studies guinea pigs, though only one named Jane survived a failed experiment. He’s very attached. Botanist Lucius Fretway (John-Michael Marrs) tries desperately to run the club as acting President while Percy is away with some proper British decorum, though largely unsuccessfully. Not the least of his problems is their bartender, widely recognized as the worst bartender in the world. Into this melee comes Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Dana Schultes). Only Fretway wants to admit her as a member, though his romantic notions may cloud his judgment. The rest deny her entry and question her explorations, even though she at least has an audience with the Queen. The Explorers Club at WaterTower Theatre is a co-production with Stage West in Fort Worth, where it ran during the holidays. And seeing them recreate the ample and beautiful set, designed by Claire Floyd Devries, on the WaterTower stage was a huge pleasure. The club’s bar room has the feel of a 19th Century hunting club, with tall wooden walls, bookcases, wood plank floors, and a large curved granite bar that creates the setting for a remarkable piece of physical comedy. The set was dressed in leather furniture, animal heads, a suit of armor and oriental rugs. Lynn Lovett went beyond the call to find amazing properties and decorations for this set and for the actors, pieces of which became important parts of the story. It was a set you could hang out in while enjoying your favorite brandy and cigar, one of the high points for the membership. Director Jim Covault allowed this group of actors to find their characters and create a group of stuffy Brits with their peccadillos and flaws aplenty, while keeping the atmosphere light and fun. There was no pretense or comic intention here – just characters who really believed in their own importance. Comedy came from that belief and a script filled with mayhem, wit and near-slapstick dialog. This play was truly hilarious! Michael Robinson designed a range of costumes right out of London, late 1870s. Dana Schultes wore fabulous, full-length, colorful dresses, both as Spotte-Hume and, even more lavishly, as Spotte-Hume’s sister, Countess Glamorgan. Ward’s costumes as Harry Percy were comical themselves, while Igneczi’s native “costume” and body decorations jumped, well, off his skin. Lighting by Bryant Yeager and sound by Kellen Voss seemed subtle. The set had to be lit brightly because it’s comedy, but also because little pieces of lighting came from little spots within the set. I think there were sound effects, especially offstage voices and noises, but they were so well integrated with action it was hard to identify them specifically. Babakayode Ipaye served this play fantastically as Director of Physical Comedy, not a title normally seen in plays, but apropos for this production. The play has a lot of “small” violent actions, accidents, and mayhem, and these had to be tightly choreographed to make them work consistently. The incredible sequence in the bar mentioned earlier had to be perfectly timed and consistent to work and received enthusiastic ovations. Every pratfall, every scuffle, each physical moment seemed natural, spontaneous, and impossible to recreate every night. I was in awe of this spectacle, which made the story all the more funny and believable. The cast of The Explorers Club was a professional group, with all but two being either Equity or Equity candidates and the others being very experienced, and it showed. They let their individual creativity shine in the creation of each of their characters, while gelling as an ensemble and as a “club” of characters. Each seemed comfortable in their roles and showed their character’s exaggerated flaws as they explored their own arcs. You could equate them to a super band, where every member is a lead singer and a star who blends with the band and lets the power of the ensemble become the star. I love this about a truly professional actor group. A few examples are worth describing. When Ward, as Harry Percy, arrives, he creates the epitome of a swashbuckling hero. Like Ace Rimmer of Red Dwarf (“Smoke me a kipper!”), he looks and sounds the man every man wants to be in his strong delivery and his confident all-knowing look at the world. But then we see the flaws - a penchant for losing fellow explorers on the trail, his certainty about the East Pole, and his reliance on things not so scientific to argue with his fellow scientists. And in these, Ward shows a brave face, but reveals glimpses through his pratfalls when dangerous things happen. I loved the way he became the Admiral of the H.M.S. Pinafore at one point and broke into song. Watching Mark Shum as Professor Walling and Aaron Roberts as Professor Cope first fight for pride and importance in their snakes and rodents, and then seeing inevitable consequences unfold, lets us watch these two actors completely unwind physically. While being distraught, at each other’s throats, in mortal combat, and then admitting their deepest friendship, the two “weakest” of the characters become the most combative and physical of the cast. Roberts’ play with guessing games allowed him to show a different, more exuberant, side of Cope. And Shum’s travel from the staid uppity Professor (think David Hyde Pierce) to a basket case showed Shum’s command of the comedy genre. Dana Schultes played two characters that were as different as night and day. Phyllida Spotte-Hume was meek, weak, pushed around by the men of the club. When she later enters as the sister, Countess Glamorgan, she’s strong, bold, and superior to the men in confidence and station, making sure they know her power over them. Schultes makes this transition to a queen mother type easily and we see her stand tall and counter the men’s moves with confidence. And finally, we have to talk about Michael Ulmer as Luigi. He adopts an innocent monkey-like stance and demeanor that is just riveting. One could accuse him of drawing focus all the time, but in this case it seems natural. Just watching Ulmer pace around, gorilla-like, examining everything, was a comedy by itself. If he had the stage alone, you would watch him like a mime, fascinated. The fact he was doing this all around the feet and legs of all these staid science types was the irony that created constant turmoil, including that drink sequence he and the guys did with the bar and drinks and flying – oh my! This work rivaled some of the comic routines of past greats. See this show if only to see this bit! The Explorers Club is a throwback to an era where discrimination and ignorance of the truths of human nature were common. We looked back on the outcomes of those times and found them understandably funny. We should take caution, though, for those attitudes are not so distant and may be alive and well in some areas of our society. But this play, these characters, and this production gave us a chance to look again in the mirror and see both the hilarity and the underlying truth. I applaud the people of Stage West and WaterTower for collaborating. I hope we see more of this in the future. The results were a resounding success. Just be prepared to laugh – a lot!

WaterTower Theatre
Addison Theatre and Conference Centre
15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001

Plays through February 8th

Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Additional performances on Saturday, January 31st and February 7th at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm.

Ticket prices range from $22.00-$40.00, with a $3.00 senior/student discount Wednesday through Friday.

For information and to purchase tickets, visit or call the box office at 972-450-6232.