Colonial Players' season opener, Michael Hollinger's Incorruptible, irreverently looks at the practices inside a 13th-century French monastery, positing that ends can justify the means under desperate conditions while laughing at naive beliefs in the miraculous powers of relics.
At Sunday's matinee performance, some of us in the predominantly senior audience were amused at how much we flawed folk today have in common with the monks who promised bigger miracles than their competitors. Today we are promised miraculous restorations of youth in cosmetic and drug ads, and for contemporary hypocrisy unmasked we need look no further than last week's headlines.
"At its heart, this play seeks to convey a simple message about the power of faith in the face of adversity," Tom Newbrough says in his director's notes, adding that "some of the best comedy derives from the darker aspects of the human experience."
Elsewhere in the printed program, Hollinger expressed his amazement at hearing from his Catholic wife that "people pray to body parts" and said he soon afterward saw the possibility of a play on the economic necessity of relics in the Middle Ages.
Act I started slowly, as we learned about the bones of St. Foy at Priseaux not producing a miracle for 13 years. This dearth caused pilgrims to go to the abbey in Bernay, where bones from St. Foy, which the abbess claimed were purchased from a one-eyed monk, were now producing miracles.
Making matters worse for Abbott Charles of Priseaux is the fact that his sister Agatha, the Abbess of Bernay, was always a fierce competitor who won most of their childhood battles.
The plot involves Brother Martin's scheme that evolves after the body of a Jewish money changer winds up at the monastery. A peasant woman who has a sick cow in need of a miracle arrives with her daughter, Marie, who dances for the monks while her one-eyed boyfriend, Jack, juggles and tells jokes.
Although there were frequent titters, I didn't hear sustained laughter until well after Brother Martin persuaded Charles to have the Priseaux brothers dig up bones from their cemetery to distribute to other locations, promoting them as miracle-producing relics. Soon, the minstrel Jack is recruited to help with the bone trafficking and temporarily ordained as Brother Norbert.
Act II is livelier, with faster-paced comedy delivered by better-choreographed monks doing their shticks. Cynical Brother Martin persuades the pope to visit by promising him an "incorruptible," meaning a deceased person who doesn't decompose.
Marie is carried in a sack inside the monastery by Jack - now Brother Norbert - and has some of her funniest lines as she is auditioned to play the incorruptible and placed on the altar awaiting the pope's visit.
Pseudo miracles occur when Brother Felix reveals his love for a peasant girl believed to have drowned who may now have turned up. Jack proves capable of a selfless act and seems at home in his monk's robes. The Abbess of Bernay arrives to expose her brother's culpability in the relics trafficking scheme.
Brother Martin is well-played by Danny Brooks. Edd Miller plays the Abbot Charles energetically with comic flair, and Jamie Hanno makes a sincere Brother Felix, adding an element of romance to his character. Scott Nichols' dimwitted Brother Olf delivers amusing double takes. Lawrence Griffin plays the bumbling minstrel Jack who transitions into a near-devout Brother Norbert.
Mary MacLeod is the worldly peasant determined to survive even if it means prostituting her daughter, Marie. Kristin Carter as Marie dances her way from sinner to near-saint and displays more common sense than most of the others.
Beth Terranova as Agatha makes the most of her brief time on stage, giving her character all the power and energy the Abbess of Bernay demands, making her verbal tussle with Miller's Abbot Charles the show's comic highlight.
Eavesdropping on conversations in the lobby at intermission, I learned that Incorruptible is an equal-opportunity offender. I heard a Catholic man say, "I know it's a comedy, but I find some of the remarks hurtful." A Jewish woman asked her friend, "Why do we always have to play money-changers?"
After the performance, I asked a Catholic friend, Betty Ball, about her reaction and she confessed her annoyance at the "cackling of the woman seated in the row behind" her at the barbs directed at believers in relics. Betty also questioned the pat turn-around at the end of the play.
Incorruptible amuses and it also may offend, so the devout should beware.
The play continues through Sept. 29 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. www.cplayers.com or 410-268-7373.