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Incorruptible — Arden Theatre Company

ImageProxyReligion was heady business in 1250. Even more than it is today.

Competition was particularly rife for relics, skeletons and even digits of saints that could draw pilgrims who would give alms to have limbs, organs, and bodily functions restored via heavenly intercession. If a church or other institution, say a convent or a monastery, was lucky enough to have hagiographic remnants reputed to foment miracles, it could even attract a visit from the Pope, meaning more pilgrims and more alms.

In Michael Hollinger’s fiercely funny fable on faith and chicanery, “Incorruptible,” the contest is dog-eat-dog, or perhaps man-eat-donkey. Survival of churches, their missions, and their clergy depends on making enough money to keep roofs from caving in and priestly occupants from starving, let alone charity for the parishioners who need tending.

As Hollinger shows from the get-go, a penny per prayer just won’t provide the necessary sustenance to make a religious institution, in this case a monastery in Priseaux, France, a going concern. Especially when wily peasants resent the penny and demand to pray without proffering it, leading to chaos and some questions about a religious order’s purpose.

Prayer itself is up for grabs, Hollinger reports. The Medieval seeking divine help may resort to the church only when throwing dung over a shoulder, studying entrails, and spitting three times into the wind doesn’t  yield desired results. Especially if he or she has to pay and penny to ask for God’s attention.

The Dark Ages are tough and superstitious times, and Hollinger finds dozens of sources of comedy in the customs and beliefs of the peasants and just as many from the behavior and compromises of the priests and nuns who populate “Incorruptible.” The play, at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, lucidly covers the cynicism and flummery in religion while setting its sights on faith. Hollinger elicits laugh after laugh and offers conspiratorial pleasure at lampooning the trappings of religion and the measures the clergy takes in preserving their personal fiefdoms and fending off others to claim a right and truthful relic. A raft of puns, double entendres,  literal answers to figurative questions, and rimshot responses to dumb or naïve statements keep the guffaws and chortles coming while Hollinger finds deeper and more intellectual humor in the dissection of the church, its venality, and its hypocrisy. Well, at least the venality and hypocrisy of its practitioners who will stop at nothing to make their parish thrive even if it involves theft, deceit, assault, disregard for the dead, and outright fraud.

Through all his jaundiced look at the corruption that the guilty would excuse as pragmatism in the name of piety, Hollinger never lets the subject of faith, the linchpin of all religious belief, fade too far from “Incorruptible’s” forefront. His play is about faith above all. Or, possibly, about lack of faith and the panic and calamity not believing, as one vows to believe, causes. No matter how savagely Hollinger exposes the shortcomings, artifice, and knavery of the church and its stewards, no matter incisive his lambastes and send-ups, he retains the idea that pure faith can exist and that it can bring about wonders. Or even tranquility that makes everyday slings and arrows bearable and in perspective.

Though comically expressed, Hollinger describes several miracles in “Incorruptible.” In villages where faith is rampant, all kinds of marvels occur. Feet grow from stumps, humps stop oozing pus and disappear, an eye destroyed by an errant juggle of a knife is restored to full luster.

Hollinger’s play attributes these miracles to unbridled, unconditional faith. They are a reward for honest belief in higher powers. While “Incorruptible” vibrates with wit, common sense, and healthy cynicism when satirizing the church and its spiritually compromised minions, the Pope among them, Hollinger shows his possible faith by upholding the overall power faith and religion might have if practiced with purity and sincerity.

Meanwhile, the delight in watching “Incorruptible” is more in the devilishly hilarious send-up of the church and all its works than in the hints that faith may accomplish wonders and that religion’s place in the world is justified. These concepts are aftereffects, intellectual constructs that cross one’s mind but are important only because they illustrate Hollinger’s conclusion. As both a script and in Matthew Decker’s  thoroughly witty and thoroughly entertaining production, it is the comedy and Hollinger’s knowing skewering of religious orders and religious ways that wow the crowd and make “Incorruptible” such a vastly amusing pleasure. Hollinger knows his target, even if he feels compelled to ultimately defend it, and Decker cannily mines every pennyworth of comedy from Hollinger’s text, so the play, my candidate for Hollinger’s best, serves most as a sharp and salient criticism of an institution that gulls and prevaricates more than it lifts and offers peace or solace.

The characters in “Incorruptible” are a grim, if comical, group. The monks of Priseaux are beside themselves because they don’t have enough provisions to nourish themselves let alone feed or shelter villagers who are poor or whose homes were destroyed by fire or damaged at the hand of some criminal marauder. Brother Martin, the strictest and most temperamental of the lot, has begun charging parishioners, like a modern day bank or airline, for routine services, including prayer, but the peasants balk at his levy and stay away or craftily sneak in a paternoster or Ave Maria when Martin isn’t looking. Another monk is Charles, the abbot, who would like to be firmly pious but is easily swayed by practical needs and who is in intense competition with his sister, a nun in nearby Bernay, over whose monastery or convent can be the more successful. The other inhabitants of Priseaux are a novice, Felix, who will carry out nefarious labor but cannot tell a lie and has a semblance of honest belief, and another novice, Olf, a half-wit whose stupidity leads to complications.

The monastery at Priseaux is lucky to have a legitimate relic, the full, if disjointed, skeleton of Sainte Foy, an 11th century martyr from the Aquitaine, well chosen by Hollinger, Sainte Foy translating to Saint Faith. (I also thought it was clever of Hollinger to choose Martin and Charles, as in Luther and Darwin, banes to the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, as the names for his duplicitous monks. I could be overintellectualizing in praising Hollinger for this, but whether his choices were intentional or not, they amused me.)

Her bones displayed neatly on a shroud, Sainte Foy has not brought much traffic to Priseaux. While once associated with a trove of miracles, her power seems to be as dry her skeletal remains. Pilgrims no longer come to Priseaux, and their alms are sorely missed. Exacerbating matters, the convent in Bernay boasts having acquired the corpse of Sainte Foy and is using them to pack in pilgrims and even lure a visit from the Pope. Bernay’s Sainte Foy apparently is dispensing miracles right and left. The lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and Agatha, the abbess in  Bernay rakes in the profits.

Agatha is particularly proud of benefiting from Sainte Foy because her success is a taunt at her brother, Charles of Priseaux, and gives her a boost in a lifelong sibling rivalry.

Charles is agog because he knows the rightful remains of Sainte Foy are in his custody. Felix, returning from an aborted mission to Rome, reports Bernay obtained its Sainte Foy from a one-eyed monk who claimed to be selling the bones on behalf of the monastery at Priseaux.

This is fraud. This is larceny. This is spiritual corruption at its highest mark. Yet Felix tells of the miracles the Bernay Foy engenders, and Charles, Martin , and the denizens of Priseaux become sullen.

They also become activist. Martin demands the monks find the one-eyed man and bring him to justice. Their search yields a minstrel who jigs and juggles and does all kinds of carnival tricks while offering to sell his “wife” who performs carnal tricks. The monks abduct and blackmail the cycloptic vaudevillian, eye patch and all, to work for them and expose the Bernay Sainte Foy for the hoax it is. The minstrel, Jack — get it, one-eyed Jack — is better than his bet. He suggests a scheme that will enrich the monastery, pilgrims or not. Martin and Charles readily embrace the plan, and the monks of Priseaux are soon in  business snatching corpses and selling them piece-by-piece to churches in needs of relics. A nose of Saint Paul here, the pelvis of St. Agnes there, and heads of John the Baptist everywhere, and the Priseaux contingent not only eats well but adds stained-glass windows to its chapter house and indulges in other worldly luxuries. Hollinger is off to the satiric races, and oh what a good time he and Decker provide for all.

Hollinger provides many good twists, the comic value of none of which escapes Decker and his cast. The Arden’s “Incorruptible” is well-paced, consistently funny, and beautifully acted, particularly by Ian Merrill Peakes as Martin, Michael Doherty as the resourceful Jack, and Josh Carpenter as the obedient Felix.

Peakes is a study in anger born of frustration. He is the monk charged with keeping the Priseaux monastery afloat, and none of his fiscal or managerial measures seems to do much good in replenishing the parish’s dwindling coffers.

Peakes’s Martin is less interested in helping the poor and pastoral duties than he is in enjoying the more cushy trappings of being a priest at a time when the church can provide some living and offer a man a position of respect. Martin wants cash to dress up the monastery with the opulence and elegance for which the church will come to be known, and he wants to eat the best food available. He really resents having to rely on the monastery donkey for repast.

Because he is intent on being effective and well-fed, Martin is open to using nefarious means to improve Priseaux’s status. His comfort depends on it, Gosh darn it!

Peakes is wonderful in displaying both Martin’s bluster and his acceptance of artifice when Doherty’s Jack tells how he bamboozled the abbess at Bernay, who nonetheless prospered from his dishonesty, just as he profited by it, with payment of, get this, 30 pieces of gold. (That Hollinger is one clever and scholarly bugger.) It is a delight to see Peakes’s expression change as he realizes the deliciously slimy merits of Jack’s plan. Martin is the architect of Priseaux’s recovery to grandeur, and Peakes conveys how a driving force acts and what he looks like.

Peakes also carries the bulk of cynicism on his capable shoulders. Jack is a known and happy ne’er do well. Martin enjoys being new to the business of fixing the odds and fooling the masses. New-found purpose makes him no less grumpy or apt to growl orders and belittle others who don’t quite grasp all he sees so readily, but it gives him a larcenous glow, an Alec Guinness touch to Martin’s otherwise Broderick Crawford persona. It is all quite entertaining to see. With Doherty, Peakes gives a strong spine to “Incorruptible,” one that pays dividends in caustic laughs.

Michael Doherty brings many gifts to any production he’s in. The actor is irrepressible, yet his hamminess and outsized acting grace a production more than overpowering it. Doherty showed his talents in last season’s “Lend Me a Tenor” at Act II and the recent “Miracle of Miracles” at Montgomery Theatre, but “Incorruptible” provides an opportunity for him to take his excesses to town, and Decker allows him free rein.

Doherty is capable of presenting a vocabulary of facial expression with one eye patched. He uses physicality and a Nathan Lane/Jackie Gleason style of line delivery with comic aplomb. Whether juggling as an able but not overly talented minstrel, wheedling his way out of a prickly situation, devising a diabolical plot that will save the monastery, succumbing begrudgingly to Martin’s blackmail, sneaking his alleged wife into the monastery for a quickie, attempting to get that same “wife” to behave before a praying Charles opens his eyes, or showing the heart of do a magnificent good deed, Doherty aces the moment. He goes overboard with the regularity of a compulsive suicide on a cruise ship, but his largeness never galls and never turns cloying. Doherty is too great a clown for that.

In “Incorruptible,” Jack may not be the most learned of the lot, but he is the shrewdest. He has street smarts that come from years of having to survive in an unfriendly, illiterate, plague-ridden era. Selling one bunch of bones to some religious order that should be skeptical but is glad to take them and name them Sainte Foy or whatever, is just a way to make a living, Jack’s nine-to-five. That his scam is embraced by the church is none of his business. Eating for now, and saving to open a bakery with his wife, Marie, in the future, is enough of a motive for Jack to shed morals he can’t afford anyhow and make his way in the world. The church doesn’t mind following his suit when it gets the chance to benefit from Jack’s guile.

Josh Carpenter is sweet and speaks his lines, some classical quotes that require refinement in delivery, beautifully as Felix, the pure novice who has a secret of which he is ashamed, a pact he made with a young lady, one he truly loved, and then reneged upon. In reviewing Quintessence Theatre’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” I noted Carpenter’s potential and said I eagerly awaited seeing his future performances. His Orin in the O’Neill play was a tad overintense and let me see the seams in Carpenter’s performance. His Felix is as cleanly acted as Felix is pure in heart and spirit.

Felix comes from the corners to provide his comedy, and Carpenter has the perfect physical and vocal presence to show Felix’s innocence while conveying his intellect and giving a comic tone to his acting. Carpenter’s is fine work and, again, makes me want to see more of him as his skills develop.

Paul L. Nolan shows the befuddlement of Charles, an abbot whose faith is basically sound but troubled by some foul deeds from a distant past. Charles wants to do the right thing. He does not want to corrupt the probity of the church even if it means his Priseaux monastery will lapse into bankruptcy and be abandoned. Martin’s kind of lapse, towards pragmatism that preserves Priseaux, is more attractive, and Charles reluctantly agrees to go a long with it, his motives not totally based on doing what one must to maintain a mission in Priseaux. He is bent on punishing Jack, and forcing him to live as a monk is as delectable to him as reaping the benefits of Jack’s perfidy.  He also loathes his sister, a partner in the sin that rankles his religious purity, and wants to one-up her for claiming the bones she bought from Jack are the genuine remnants of Sainte Foy and making a profit from them.

Nolan adds greatly to “Incorruptible’s” comic tone by playing Charles as one who knows better but goes along with Martin’s scheme because he too is corrupt when it comes to comfort and revenge.

Sam Sherburne is wonderful as the dim-witted Olf, whose name could just as well have an “a” between the “o” and the “f” to spell “oaf.” Olf is the opposite of Sherburne’s wily, mind-all-over-the-place performance as would-be Reagan assassin in New City Stage’s “Hinckley.” He keeps his jaw slack and his eyes a bit bugged as Olf lumbers through his assignments with a sort of savant obsessiveness and oxlike clumsiness.

Everything escapes Sherburne’s Olf, which means he is always doing things unaware that he is complicating situations and making them more tense for Martin, Charles, and Jack.

Marcia Saunders caps off a fine year of performances with a harridan-like turn as Agatha, the abbess of Bernay. Saunders roars into Priseaux and doesn’t stop roaring until she realizes her brother may have gotten the upper hand. For now. The audience roars with Saunders when she intones, “Christ on the cross, it’s the haberdasher” at a critical moment.

Mary Martello is rascally as the peasant who resists giving a penny to pray but is willing to accept a fee to send her daughter to pleasure the monks. “She knows how to work with celibates,” Martello’s peasant says while focusing on a monk’s crotch.

Alex Keiper rounds out Decker’s cast as the woman Jack calls his wife, a partner in his minstrel act, a partner in crime, and a surprise partner of another sort as “Incorruptible” proceeds.

James Kronzer does a fine job creating a monastery set that has more opulent appointments to show how the church has prospered between the first and second acts. Lauren Perigard also provides a witty touch by changing the monk’s robes from frowsy brown coarse material in the first act to more handsome tunics worn over white blouses in the second. Her motley for Jack matches the wit of Decker’s overall production.

“Incorruptibke” runs through Sunday, June 22 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, just north of Christ Church, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday,2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 1 and 15. Tickets range from $36 to $16 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by going online to www.ardentheatre.org.

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