One of the funniest plays this season is The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theatre Club (it closes this weekend so if you haven’t seen it, grab a ticket fast). A world premiere by Nell Benjamin, The Explorers Club was directed by Marc Bruni, with a design team including Anita Yavich, costumes, Philip Rosenberg, lighting, Darron L. West, sound, and Donyale Werle, who created scenery that is a perfect envelope for the hilarity on stage.
“As it was the world premiere, I worked on the play through the entire process,” says Werle, who describes The Explorers Club as “very smart humor, very physical.” In addition to the text as an early research tool, the creative team also looked at photos of actual Explorer’s Clubs around the world and actually visited the one in New York City. “The tusks on the bar came from there and they have a real walrus head, we made ours,” Werle explains.
Her brief was that the set couldn’t eclipse the text, which resulted in “an exercise in restraint” for Werle (one wonders what she would have done if…). “I kept pulling it back,” she admits. But with the large tusks, an elephant candle holder, the walrus head, taxidermy, assorted artifacts, and plants that rival anything in Little Shop Of Horrors, the set is jam-packed with scenery, furniture, and props, but designed to leave room for the physical action required of the actors.
“The plants are held in boxes on the grid,” Werle notes, to explain the unbridled growth of a specimen that begins as a shoot in a pot and eventually overtakes the stage. “The boxes pivot—by hand—and the plants come crashing down. Paper Mâché Monkey (who also painted the walls of the set) constructed the greenery, using dyed muslin, green hemp string, and silk foliage. Tom Carroll buit the set and bar, and painted the floor, stairs, and bar.
For the wood on the set—walls and bar—US Birch ply is covered with layers of Minwax water-based stain and linseed oil to give it a 19th-century London look. “We salvaged doors and hardware, layering them with stain, as well as using old-world paint techniques to get burls in the wood,” notes Werle.
Portraits of explorers on the walls—taken before their untimely deaths—had the cast helping to give them names and create back-stories. “Mo Geiger worked on these for a long time, she pieced them together to make photographs look like real portraits, a head from there, an arm from here, a ship, an animal… with a crystal gel treatment on top in diagonal brush strokes, then a coat of amber shellac,” explains Werle. “She added color by hand, to make sure the shadows are correct and on the right side.”
Various props required a bit of special attention: a giraffe rug is made of cowhides sewn together and cut into the shape of a giraffe, but the action of stage kept taking the real spots off so faux ones were painted on instead; the walrus head was made by putting each hair and whisker in by hand; and the specimens in jars came from Evolution, a store in Soho. ”Some of the taxidermy came from Ebay and Craig’s List,” says Werle, who created a collection of animals looking at each other.
For the numerous liquor bottles on shelves behind the bar, the labels were made brighter than usual, “to make it look more interesting,” confides Werle. “Real bottles from the period are not colorful enough, so we did a lot of Photoshopping and painting. Low tech, but good tools.”
While there is not a square inch left uncovered, Werle found herself cutting back for budgetary reasons as well. “But we had to make sure the offstage areas and rooms that are seen by the audience were not left bare.” A tour of The Explorers Club set would certainly reveal that it is one well-worth exploring.