Stupid Scientific Expeditions: Victorian Souvenirs in The Explorers Club
There was the moose in Lincoln Park's John Barleycorn pub, and the wild boar in Boystown's Chaps that once led a young cowboy to stand at full height atop a bar stool for a head-on view of the fierce tusks and snout, but animal-head trophies are something of a rare sight nowadays, most wild game hunters preferring to view their quarry as steaks and chops for the winter. The Victorian gentlemen of Nell Benjamin's comedy, however, live for the thrill of conquest and the bragging rights thereto, so it should come as no surprise that the brandy-and-cigars lounge of the titular Explorers Club is heavily festooned with souvenirs reflecting its members' ecology-be-damned attitudes.
The collection includes deer, gazelle and bear heads, several stuffed birds and small mammals, and what looks, from one corner of the Windy City Playhouse's spectator gallery, like some sort of large, hairy ruminant--a Himalayan Wild Yak, maybe. The play's action also calls for a "deadly cobra" to be carried about affectionately in the pocket of a doting herpetologist, until a threat to its protector spurs the reptile to launch an attack on the alleged enemy. Oh, and unlike objects in a museum, these artifacts are not safely displayed behind physical barriers, but instead share perilous proximity with director David H. Bell's trademark full-stage slapstick juggling--this time involving drinks caught in mid-air after being frisbeed at their recipients by an inexperienced bartender. Nor are there fourth-wall restraints--not after the period potables of the clubmen's bar are augmented at intermission by modern libations carted in from the theater lobby for the refreshment of the play's spectators.
"I love the Windy City Playhouse!" exults Jamie Karas, whose task is the accumulation and maintenance of the tschtochkes lending the bare bones of Scott Davis' setting its densely-textured atmosphere. "Part of the excitement is having everything right out there in front of you where you can appreciate the details."
Those details include the aforementioned "hairy ruminant" (which turns out to be two chickens trussed up by the feet) and a bundle of rabbit skins affixed to the staircase railing. The liquor cabinet is topped by a variety of birds--two mounted on the antlers of the deer trophies ("just to make it more interesting" Karas confides mischievously). While the latter are a loan from the show's producers, the other exhibits demanded that a wider net be cast.
"Normally, these items would be prohibitively expensive to rent, but what makes the Chicago Theater community so unique is that so many people know one another and want to help each other. Our critters are almost exclusively borrowed from other companies--all with a 'you-damage-it-you-buy-it' caveat, of course."
How about Rosie the cobra? According to Karas, a live snake--though not necessarily a cobra--was considered early in rehearsals, but rejected as too unpredictable for the proposed performance regimen. This initiated a search for just the right fake-snake: "Cobras only spread their hoods when angered or agitated, but the script keeps Rosie pretty calm up to the moment that somebody tries to hurt her daddy, so even though we had the angry-snake option, we decided to use the peaceful Rosie. She and Zack [Shornick, who plays the gentle Professor Cope] looked so comfortable together."
There are still the hazards associated with a swarm of curious firewater-toting playgoers succumbing to the temptation to play with the props. "I think most people would respect the space," says Karas, "but just to be sure, I put most of the items high up off the floor and ascertained that they were soundly secured. We also cautioned the bar staff and ushers to watch out for anyone making a grab at something." She smiles, "Of course, if all somebody wants is a photo of themselves posing in the trophy room of The Explorers Club, we'll be happy to take one for them."
The Explorers Club runs at Windy City Playhouse through April 17.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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