The quiet, contemplative life of a monastery: Andy Baldwin, Justin Flowers and Meg Bauman (l to r)
- Lawson Taitte‘s review in the Dallas Morning News
- Mark Lowry‘s review on Theater Jones
- Punch Shaw’s review in the Star-Telegram
At one point in Michael Hollinger’s medieval comedy, Incorruptible, a young woman has to hide in a body bag in a monastery storeroom. She’s in there with other body bags, and she overhears a couple of monks talking about the many fraudulent relics they’ve pried from the freshly dug-up skeletons. The monastery has been selling the bones to other ecclesiastical outfits eager to become pilgrimage sites. That way, they’ll make some real money off the sick and the lame hoping for miracles.
So they tick off their sales: So far, the monastery has sold off a dozen heads of St. John the Baptist, St. Andrew’s fingers, and oh — several feet from St. James the Greater.
The monks depart, and from the body bag comes the bewildered question: “What the hell kind of religion is this?”
Well, that would the medieval Church and its traffic in fake relics and miracle cures, a lucrative and ludicrous trade (St. Peter’s brains, anyone?) that was roundly mocked by Erasmus, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But many centuries later, the whole relic-and-pilgrimage industry is still good for some great laughs — which, let us thank the good Lord, Incorruptible provides.
Directed by Robin Armstrong, Incorruptible is simply one of the sharpest productions that Circle Theatre has staged — from the note-perfect casting of such talented comic actors as Trey Walpole and David Lambert to Clare Floyd DeVries’ handsome stone set (one of the few times that Circle Theatre’s inconvenient, basement columns get put to excellent, crypt-like use). Hollinger’s play is a smart comedy given a smart staging, and these days, that’s reason enough for several hosannahs.
Even if the hosannahs come with a couple of caveats (and a footnote, below, about St. James’ feet).
Incorruptible finds St. Foy’s in 13th-century France has gone broke because the remains of St. Foy haven’t generated a miracle in more than a decade. The monks are down to charging peasants a penny-a-prayer. The kindly abbot Charles (Walpole) counsels his short-tempered, practical-minded second-in-command, Brother Martin (Lambert): Yes, things are bad but we shouldn’t take it out on the poor.
Martin: “Well, who else can we take it out on?”
Then comes the news that a nearby convent is doing some brisk pilgrimage business. Even the pope is trekking over for a visit because of the many miracles inspired by — none other than St. Foy. It seems someone has sold St. Foy’s remains to the convent, and the monks’ suspicions alight on a cynical, half-blind minstrel appropriately named Jack (Andy Baldwin). To spare himself from certain execution, the one-eyed Jack convinces the monks that he didn’t steal St. Foy. He just dug up a conveniently dead pig farmer and found an eager buyer for the now-sacred bones.
And the monks could do the same – on a more wholesale basis.
As is their wont, farcical complications ensue. Jack’s girlfriend (Meg Bauman) thinks the whole scheme is nuts (she’s the one in the body bag). But her penny-pinching mother (Deborah Brown) wishes her daughter would just dump the inept and impecunious Jack.
And then there’s an ominous trend: The monastery is running out of freshly dead bodies.
Incorruptible offers the appealing, typical fare of a farce — including door-slammings and body-bag-hiding-ins. True, the demented physical frenzy of a play like Noises Off! never really kicks in. Intermittently, it gets close. There is, for instance, a choice demonstration of blind faith when Charles kneels and prays and Jack (silently) scrambles to keep an unwilling corpse on board St. Foy’s shrine.
As Jack the minstrel, Andy Baldwin is the play’s engine; he’s the hungry conniver, Phil Silvers-as-Sgt. Bilko, Zero Mostel-as-Pseudolus. But Baldwin feels too abrasive in the role. There is a personal anger motivating Jack — it involves his bad eye — and the monks certainly exploit him on top of that. But we want to enjoy the underdog’s disrespect for authority, to side with his brazen ploys. And Baldwin is a little low on charm, a little high on irritation.
Or perhaps it’s not Baldwin at all. This seems to be the emotional and spiritual path of Hollinger’s play. Hollinger wants to deepen the conniver’s character, give him a touch of rediscovered soul. But a farce proceeds by stripping away illusions and deceits; it reduces people to unthinking, manic impulses.
Which may be why the final wrap-up of Incorruptible doesn’t succeed. Not for me, at any rate. Like the abbot himself, the scene is well-intentioned, but Hollinger is trying to do something that perhaps a farce can’t do at all: instill and reward religious faith. By its nature, a farce is materialistic and iconoclastic. It hilariously traps its characters until they break down and face facts. Doing so, it liberates us and them. But imagine if — instead of Sgt. Bilko getting away with his schemes — imagine if, at the end of a show, he eagerly gave all the money back that he’s been swindling from people. He repents, it’s theirs, stealing is wrong — and he’s joining a convent.
That’s a spiritual conversion, a deep reversal of character. And I’ve never seen a farce pull off such a thing — not successfully, anyway. Perhaps they can. But in Incorruptible, Jack is angry at the Church; he is trapped and metaphorically blind (at least half-blind). And at the end, he returns to faith. A play that was irreverent turns reverent.
It’s only a few minutes out of two acts, but the moment is not fully convincing. Honestly, though? You may be enjoying yourself too much to care.
Michael Hollinger’s Incorruptible runs at Circle Theatre through Aug. 15.
Footnote: A pedantic point, I admit, about religious history. In one scene in Incorruptible, the monks get excited about selling a (fake) relic of St. James the Greater. Hmm. Trouble is, according to the Church, St. James’ entire body was miraculously transported to Spain, eventually to Compostela. It became one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages (the routes there even became known as “the Way of St. James.” In France, you can still see the path, worn through the stone countryside over centuries by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims).
I realize the Church’s relic industry went insanely overboard in its greed. As implausible as many relics seemed, they were the desperately wished-for wonder drug, quack cure and spiritual salvation of the era. And the monks in Incorruptible could just be getting a little over-excited.
But to say you had a foot of St. James the Greater would have been akin to saying you had St. Thomas a Becket’s pinky — even though blessed St. Thomas, as every good Christian knew, was very conspicuously enshrined at Canterbury. His grave was an even more popular pilgrimage site than Compostela — until Henry VIII had the tomb destroyed in 1538.
All of which means that if you announced you had St. James’ foot, people would immediately conclude you stole it. Everyone knew where it was supposed to be. Which also means that the monks in Incorruptible would know such a relic would be a difficult item to sell. Anyone displaying the thing would be risking arrest.