Michael Hollinger’s ‘Incorruptible’ at the Arden

A dark comedy of the Dark Ages

When Michael Hollinger's Incorruptible had its world premiere in Philadelphia in 1996, I enjoyed it as a dark comedy, balancing a serious mien with comic elements. It seemed to be carefully trying not to offend the religious faithful. Now, 18 years later, this full-out farcical production about corrupt monks emerges as an even greater achievement.

Ian Merrill Peakes, Mary Martello, and Paul L. Nolan in Arden Theatre Company's production of 'Incorruptible' by Michael Hollinger. Photo by Mark Garvin.

There is an underlying serious element, of course: “Does the end justify the means? It is possible for us to become corrupted, regardless of our good intentions?” But Matthew Decker’s sparkling sharp production puts its emphasis on the wit, with physical humor and split-second comic timing.

A neglected French abbey during the Dark Ages hasn’t had a paying pilgrim in 13 years. The bones of Saint Foy, displayed on their altar, are unproductive. A local woman won’t contribute even a penny to pray to the bones for her sick cow. Then the desperate monks come across a one-eyed traveling minstrel who teaches them an enterprising way to fill their empty offering plate.

In an attempt to raise money and to gain the approbation of the Pope, these monks dig up bodies from their cemetery, advertise the bones as the remains of saints, and fraudulently sell them to other parishes. We should recall that such relics were the panacea of the Dark Ages, a quick fix for the unhappiness of the era.

The monks want money primarily so they can give charitable aid to their parishioners, so their initial motivation was good and noble. They also would like to dress up their digs to attract pilgrims. In Act I the monks complain that they cannot afford stained-glass casements; in Act II we see their new colorful windows. Their robes, too, become more luxe. As Che sings in Evita, no one asks questions when the money keeps rolling in.

Dem bones

The monks tick off their sales: they have sold off St. Andrew’s fingers, St. James’s feet, and a dozen heads of St. John the Baptist — even the tail of St. Bernard. They boast of their efficiency: “Out of the ground and on the road in 48 hours.”

When the graveyard’s crop is depleted they begin to contemplate murder. To explain why the new body has not decomposed, the monks will proclaim that it’s an "incorruptible," a saint who is so holy that his or her physical remains do not deteriorate.

Paul L. Nolan plays Charles, the abbot, insecure because his shrewish sister is a close friend of the pope and ambivalent about what he’s doing. Less conflicted is Father Martin; Ian Merrill Peakes plays him as a man who relishes pulling off a scam. This is a masterful comedic turn by an actor usually known for dramas (and who will portray Macbeth at the Arden next season).

Michael Doherty does a bravura job as Jack, the one-eyed underdog who gave this band of brothers the idea of going into the fake-relic business. He is a charming conniver in the tradition of TV’s Sergeant Bilko or Sondheim’s Pseudolus, but Doherty plays him with sweet, charming fallibility rather than the brashness of Phil Silvers or Zero Mostel.

Alex Keiper is a dazzling presence as Marie, Jack's partner in his minstrel show, especially when she is laid out under a shroud. Josh Carpenter is sweet as the innocent and idealistic novice Felix. Mary Martello is an amusing peasant woman, and Marcia Saunders has a tour de force with her brief appearance as Charles’s sister late in the play. Sam Sherburne is properly oafish as the dim-witted Brother Olf.

Decker’s direction is flashy and fast-moving. It illustrates the versatility of a talented man who previously impressed us with his superior stagings of the musical Spring Awakening and the sensitive dramas Fat Pig, Kimberly Akimbo, and Circle Mirror Transformation.

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