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CurtainUp DC Review
Incorruptible, A Dark Comedy About the Dark Ages
by Rich See
Washington Stage Guild heads off the new year with Michael Hollinger's bawdy farce satirizing the fragility of faith in the face of survival. Incorruptible, A Dark Comedy About the Dark Ages is a fun, gentle rib-poking look at how we humans gleefully twist our convictions to rationalize our bad behavior. As side trips it looks at how we treat our dead religious icons and how far even churches will go to make a buck.
For the non-Catholics -- deceased holy people who don't decompose are what is called an "incorruptible." It's estimated that only about 1% of the Catholic Church's saints fall into this category; these include: St. Bernadette of Lourdes, Pope John XIII, St. John Vianney, St. John Damascene, St. Catherine Laboure, and a few others. The state of decomposition can be non-existent, extremely slow, or result in mummification, but can not occur from extensive embalmment or other explainable natural means. "Relics," meanwhile, are portions of a saint's body that have been removed and placed in other spots so that the faithful can make pilgrimages to a myriad number of religious locations to request the saint's intersession for assistance. Thus feet, livers, and other internal and external body parts are disseminated throughout the globe in order to spread the miracle wealth (so to speak). For example, while the body of Mother Cabrini (also known as St. Frances Xavier Cabrini) is housed in New York City in the chapel at Mother Cabrini High School (just off the A Train), her head is located in Italy. Which makes you realize -- EBay, in one form or another, has been going on for a very long time...
Michael Hollinger bases his farcical script on actual things that occurred during the Dark and Middle Ages. He takes some artistic license, of course, but the stealing and trafficking of saints' body parts was in high demand during these times and so his general story line could very well have happened just about anywhere in Europe. In this case, he takes St. Foy (a 13 year-old girl martyred in the fourth century, who is an actual saint still popular in Europe and Latin America) and places the action in a monastery at Priseaux, France. There the monks are trying to figure out how to bring in an influx of cash so the monastery can continue its mission to help the needy and stave off the starvation of the clergy. The monastery's patron saint (Foy) has not produced a miracle in thirteen years and the pilgrims, as well as the local people, have stopped coming looking for assistance and paying an obligatory donation to view the saint's relics (her entire skeleton). Instead the faithful have moved on to other more active and celebrated holy sites. Even for churches in the dark ages it was all about public relations and staying current with constant miraculous output. Which is not that much different than the cult of celebrity worship and maintaining celebrity status today.
When St. Foy's identity is stolen (not just a 21st century problem!) the monks face starvation or accepting drastic measures to keep the order afloat. Ironically, even the brothers of Priseaux have a hard time believing in their patron. When a murdered Jewish money changer arrives on their doorstep at the same time a one-eyed, itinerant minstrel stumbles through town, Brother Martin hits upon the idea of selling off the monastery's graveyard full of bodies ("We could sell him -- for parts!") and suddenly things begin looking up for the Abbot of Priseaux and his colleagues as they traffic in the sale of "saintly" heads, feet, and collarbones. Until the Pope announces he will be making a visit to see their incorruptible, which unfortunately they don't actually possess...
Director Steven Carpenter maintains the pacing at a smooth rate, which underscores Hollinger's joke filled script. Keeping the action entirely in the chapter house of the Priseaux monastery, the play skirts the edge of the absurd as the stakes grow higher and the behavior more outlandish. The play could devolve into a basic slapstick comedy but Mr. Carpenter keeps the satiric wit front and center.
Tracie Duncan's set is a simple, faux stone room, with the resting place of St. Foy at center stage. Three entrances provide plenty of opportunity for slamming door-like escapes and unexpected intrigue. Clay Teunis' sound provides some chanting monks and some ethereal background sounds for atmosphere. William Pucilowsky's costumes are an interesting study. The monks are clothed in basic wool robes, the peasant woman is covered in dirty rags, but Jack, Marie, and the Abbess are outfitted in clean, colorful, Disney-like attire that seems oddly out of place, but which slowly warm up on you.
Along with many regular Stage Guild company members there is a nice mix of new talent within the cast. As faith-wavering Charles, Bill Hamlin's feeling and angst-ridden Abbot of Priseaux contrasts nicely to Bill Largess' opportunistic and cynical realist, Brother Martin. Ben Shovlin is a treat as the dimwitted Brother Olf. His wide-eyed and puzzled facial expressions add to the play's humor and the character's humanity. Worldly Brother Felix is played in an earnest, heart-felt manner by Jason Stiles, which makes how he faces his past that much more believable.
Lynn Steinmetz' Peasant Woman is a caustic yet rowdy treat as she tries to prostitute her daughter to the clergy. Jack, the one-eyed minstrel, is played with glee by Chris Davenport. His juggling and balancing act are a treat within the performance and his conversion to St. Foy is done with a slow tenderness that seems sincere. As Marie, Marybeth Fritzky is the unexpected voice of sanity, moving from prostitute to minstrel dancer to almost dead, almost saint. Laura Giannarelli adds some late energy to the show with her Agatha, Abbess of Bernay. The powerful and competitive sister of Charles, she comes on strong and never lets up as she throws out one-liners like "They'd follow the Pope to hell if he said it was good for their sinuses."
Incorruptible's higher intentions meets reality-based fears is a warm little comedy for these cold winter nights -- sure to bring a smile to your face at some point in its dark humored hijinks.
Links to Other plays by Michael Hollinger reviewed at CurtainUp:
An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf
Tooth and Claw
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.