I had not heard of Michael Hollinger's 1996 farce, Incorruptible, until the University of Maryland Baltimore County Theater Program's new production. I'm grateful to UMBC for bringing it to my attention.
The veneration of deceased saints' corpses and belongings and the attribution of miracles to them were practices wide open to fraud and abuse, a perception that goes back to Luther and Chaucer. The cult of relics, which reached its height during the Middle Ages, now seems creepy and risible to all but the most steadfast modern Catholic believers – and hence grist for the comic mill. Incorruptible is loosely based on a celebrated fight between two medieval churches over one saint's remains.
In brief, the premise is that the relics at one French monastery have "given out" and are failing to produce new miracles. Those miracles being the monastery's only profit center, something must be done, and quickly. The weaselly Brother Martin (Brad Widener) hits on a scheme to force Jack, a third-rate minstrel and even lower-tier grave robber (David Brasington), to revive the monastery's economy by turning the monastery's graveyard into a kind of saint junkyard, purveying skulls, fingers and other bones to any European cathedral with the need and the ready cash for them.
In classic farcical style, no sooner does this osseous juggling act come under control than the ante is upped: the monastery must now meet the demand for an "incorruptible," a corpse that never decomposes, the Rolls-Royce of relics. Jack's girlfriend Marie (Sydney Kleinberg) (or is she the girlfriend of Brother Felix (Christopher Dews)?) seems ready to be pressed into service over what may be her dead body. Or maybe she will fly the coop, leaving the monastery with nothing to show the Pope when he inauspiciously calls. The monks, torn between greed, fear, sibling rivalry, and conscience, will have to find a way to meet all eventualities. And only a bona fide miracle will save them.
We in the audience, we of little faith, must still cling to our belief that in a farce, all will work eventually for the good. And seeing how these apparently unreconcilable elements coalesce in the inevitable happy ending is the fun Hollinger's play completely delivers. One might wish that, in keeping with all proper costume dramas, farce included, he'd written his lines with British-sounding actors in mind, but the wisecracks are all written full of modern American phrases like "attitude problem." So it doesn't matter much that none of the home-fried young actors could be mistaken as a refugee from Masterpiece Theatre. Medieval people didn't sound like this, but then, medieval Frenchmen didn't even speak English for some reason. So it's silly to carp.
Regrettably, owing to my schedule, I had to see this piece at previews, where a blown cue led to the do-over of a few minutes, but I am confident that this student troupe, which I have seen and written of approvingly more than once, will do just fine in the "for real" performances. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Ms. Kleinberg, game whether the role called for her to dance or play dead, and Jessica Ruth Baker as the intimidating abbess Agatha, CEO of the competing ecclesiastical enterprise down the road.
Incorruptible is a hoot. You should go.
Incorruptible, by Michael Hollinger, directed by Colette Searls, through April 28, at University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle Baltimore, MD 21250. Tickets $10, available at Missiontix or 410-752-8950.