New laughs from old bones at UMBC Theatre

The monks at a financially stressed medieval monastery in Michael Hollinger's "Incorruptible" come up with a business plan that will keep the candles burning. Their plan to sell fake religious relics would not pass the ethics test, not to mention the smell test for sacred bones. Judging from the audience response at the UMBC Theatre, this silly comedy passes the even more important laughter test.

Those audience members who have not received a Roman Catholic education will catch on pretty quickly to the theological beliefs at a French monastery in 1250. It houses the bones of a saint believed to possess miraculous powers. The pilgrims, who visit the monastery in hopes of divine intervention with their earthly woes, are expected to make a donation to the caretaker monks. Such alms amount to the toll that pays for the light bill.

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For ridiculous melodramatic reasons that would make even the screenwriters for an afternoon TV soap opera scoff, the monks find themselves needing new sources of income-generating relics. Most valuable of all would be to obtain a so-called Incorruptible, the term used for the uncorrupted body of a saint so holy that the dead body does not decay.

Although this contemporary play does not have any direct connection to Monty Python, its irreverent spirit is much the same. Nothing is, er, sacred in this sort of spoof. If the monks' robes place them in a medieval setting, their speech patterns and behavior would be at home in a late-night comedy club.

As you watch new laughs being generated by the old bones of "Incorruptible," it may prompt you to reflect that for decades the UMBC Theatre has brought many scripts to life. There have been a lot of theatrical highs in a theater with a notoriously low ceiling. "Incorruptible" is the final production in the current facility, because there will be a new and improved theater as part of a new Performing Arts and Humanities Building that opens during the upcoming school year.

For all the comic complications of its plot, "Incorruptible" has a pretty basic storyline. Brother Martin (Brad Widener), Brother Olf (Daniel Friedman), Brother Charles (Anderson Wells) and Brother Felix (Christopher Dews) are the cash-strapped monks willing to stretch their morals for the sake of some money.

Their scheme, which you should discover for yourself, involves their interaction with a blunt-speaking Peasant Woman (Samantha Van Sant), who visits the monastery to venerate its relics; and this woman's daughter, Marie (Sydney Kleinberg), and son-in-law, Jack (David Brasington), who are anything-for-a-laugh minstrels.

Hollinger's characters tend to be single-note character types, but they're funny character types. The lively student actors in this UMBC production have fun indulging their stereotypical characters, and they occasionally find nuances beyond what one might expect from the, er, bare bones psychology in the script. The funniest actor of all, Brad Widener, is so manic that he makes Brother Martin seem borderline-psychotic.

Overseeing the student talent are the gifted faculty members helming this production. Director Colette Searls ensures that the plot's zany complications keep coming our way, but the pacing would benefit from being even snappier in spots.

All of this holy madness plays out on a set by Elena Zlotescu that emphasizes the rock-solid nature of an old monastery, but one with a seriously tilted wall suggesting the instability of this place.

Zlotescu also designed the costumes, which range from suitably austere robes for the monks to the ostentatious habit worn by a mother superior-type character, Agatha (Jessica Ruth Baker), whose late entrance takes us further into nonsense.

"Incorruptible" has its remaining performances Thursday and Friday, April 26 and 27 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 28 at 2 p.m., in the UMBC Theatre, 1000 Hilltop Circle in Catonsville. Tickets are $10, $5 for students and seniors. Call 410-455-2476 or go to http://www.umbc.edu/theatre or http://www.missiontix.com.

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