Pith Helmets & Pithy Plays: A2 Civic Theatre's “The Explorer's Club"


Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Explorer's Club

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Explorer's Club is set in a long-ago time but relevant to today. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

Once you learn that someone has an “adventure tiki room” in his own home -- well, let’s just say it’s not so surprising to learn this same person was inspired to direct an Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Nell Benjamin’s comedy The Explorers Club.

“(My adventure tiki room) is very empty right now,” said Brodie Brockie. “Pretty much everything is on the stage.”

The Arthur Miller Theatre’s stage, to be exact, where this weekend audiences will be transported to an exotic gathering spot for male adventurers in 1879 London. The Explorers Club, which had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2013, tells the story of what happens when a gutsy female explorer, Phyllida Spotte-Hume, crashes the club, with a non-English-speaking tribesman from a “lost city” in tow.

“He’s in hiding at the club, disguised as the bartender, when the Queen’s secretary comes looking for him,” said Brockie. “But they haven’t taught him anything about how to tend bar, so he just starts flinging drinks at everybody.”

This can be logistically tricky (and fun) for actors, so Brockie’s had to drill the bit during rehearsals, amid all the mounted masks and weapons and artifacts. “I was really drawn to the silliness of the play’s upper-class British characters, as well as the high adventure tone they seek,” said Brockie.

The club’s members are a mixed bag of hyper-masculine braggarts (including one whose claim to fame involves “discovering” the East Pole) and more subdued academics, but they all have plenty to say when the group’s acting president makes a case for bringing Phillida into the all-male fold.

“(The play) felt, when I first proposed it, surprisingly relevant, and in the time since then, it’s come to feel even more relevant by the day,” said Brockie. “It’s sad that it’s set long ago, in a place far away, and yet we’re still struggling with this. But it’s important. And that’s something that I loved about the script, too. It’s hilarious and light and funny, yes, but it also has an important contemporary message in it. It gives people something to think about without them feeling like they’re being preached to.

“It reminds me a little in that way of a movie I love, The Birdcage. … The movie never feels like it’s trying to persuade, but it creates empathy in the process of telling a story. (The Explorers Club) does that, too.”

Plus, because it’s a relatively new play, The Explorers Club offers locals a chance to have a new theater adventure of their own.

“It’s not well known, so it felt like, if I didn’t bring it to local audiences, it was unlikely anyone else would anytime soon,” said Brockie.

So dig up your pith helmet and consider joining The Explorers Club this weekend.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

“The Explorers Club" runs Jan. 11-14 at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, 322 W. Ann St. Visit a2ct.org for tickets and showtimes.