WHEN Ryan Imhoff was cast in the Nell Benjamin comedy The Explorers Club, he knew he had embarked on something that would challenge him as an actor and at the same time prepare him for other roles in the future. “It [the role] definitely requires me to use a different set of muscles,” says the Fairfield, Ohio, native who portrays the “hyperconfident“ Harry Percy, who is both endearing and horrifying. “It’s very much a specific kind of comedy, so it requires timing and all of that, but it’s a specific style that makes you want to bring truth to it even though it can be ridiculous.”
The truth is The Explorers Club, running through April 17 at Windy City Playhouse, is a romp, finding its humor in the possibility of a major change in one of the era’s most sacred male domains. Set in 19th century London, the exclusive men’s club is shaken when it appears that a woman––sponsored by the group’s acting president––could end a years-long tradition and join their ranks as a member. While this is being sorted out, they also have to deal with replacing a terrible bartender. And then there are the snakes and guinea pigs that make their way on stage.
In addition to Imhoff, the talented cast, directed by David H. Bell, includes Alex Goodrich (Lucius), Wesley Daniel (Luigi), Matt Browning (Walling), Graham Emmons (Beebee/Irish Assassin), Colin Morgan (Humphries), Dan Rodden (Sloane) and Zack Shornick (Cope). The courageous lady who is walking into the lion’s den of stuffy diehards is Cristina Panfilio, who initiates the controversy as the accomplished Phyllida Spotte-Hume, a widely recognized anthropologist who recently returned to London after successfully making an eye-opening anthropological discovery of major importance––the surprising identification of a lost civilization. During her early interaction with the club’s members, she amuses them with stories of a tribe’s strange ways, including the uncivilized group’s necessity to create jerky by boiling poisonous toads in urine.
Tony-nominated playwright Nell Benjamin—perhaps best known as the co-author of musicals, including Legally Blonde, Because of Winn-Dixie and Sarah, Plain and Tall—branches into historical comedy with this 1879 tale that in some ways highlights the variety of roadblocks faced by a number of female Victorian explorers, including Isabella Bird and Fanny Jane Butler. Benjamin, who received a master’s degree in women’s studies from Trinity College, University of Dublin, said she developed The Explorers Club after a college friend described her encounters with “old boyishness” while working toward a doctorate in physics. She also reveals that the Phyllida character is based on several female adventurers who never married and those women who ended their individual explorations when they did decide to exchange wedding vows.
Imhoff, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Wright State University in Dayton and a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California-Irvine, says that even though the play is set in 1870s London and focuses on exclusion and prejudice, Benjamin’s American sensibilities come through and offer a bit of commentary on sexism and racism because she wrote the play in 2013.
The idea of change––in this case among some highbrow stuffed shirts––can sometimes be a scary thing, evoking reactions based in the foundation of resistance. But believe it or not, humor sometimes can be found in such situations. Imhoff can speak to that firsthand as one of the play's participants, and he hopes theatergoers can see what he sees in the production. “When people come to see The Explorers Club, I just hope they laugh their asses off,” he says. “There are some underlying themes in there and we don’t want to hit them over the head with them, but I just want them to laugh their asses off.”