Can you imagine anything more improbable than a screwball comedy set in a monastery in 13th Century Europe?  Wacky, zany, and madcap are not adjectives one would normally use to describe what Wikipedia refers to as “a period of cultural decline or societal collapse that took place in Western Europe between the fall of Rome and the eventual recovery of learning.” And yet Michael Hollinger’s Incorruptible is indeed a wacky, zany, madcap romp which takes place in 1250 France.  I saw Incorruptible at the Colony Theatre in 2001—and loved it—and I am delighted to report that Theatre 40 has put together an equally rib-tickling production—now available for your delectation.

At lights up, a peasant woman has come to the monastery at Priseaux to pray for her mange-stricken cow, but prayers don’t come gratis at the monastery.  “We need your penny first,” Brother Martin informs her.  “I haven’t got a penny,” replies the peasant woman. “Then you haven’t got a prayer,” he shoots back, and we suspect we’re not in for your standard look back at the Dark Ages.  A few dung jokes later, there’s no doubt about it.

If the peasant woman has come to this particular monastery to pray, it’s because Priseaux isn’t just any monastery. The bones of Saint Foy lie on its altar, and though the saint hasn’t worked a miracle in thirteen years, having her bones on display has been a money-maker for the monks, albeit not a particularly successful one of late. That’s bound to change, says Brother Charles, the abbot, just as soon as the Pope shows up for his promised visit, which should be any minute now.

Then young novice Brother Felix arrives with bad news. The Pope is on his way to “a second-rate convent run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” because, announces Felix, “his plans have changed.  He’s left for Bernay to see Saint Foy.” It seems that the nuns at Bernay have gotten their hands on another Saint Foy and a steady stream of lepers, blind men, and hopeless cripples have all been healed.  Dozens of them!

How can this be? wonders Charles.  Aren’t Saint Foy’s bones the exclusive property of their monastery? How could those nuns have gotten their hands on a second set of bones, and a more successful set at that?

Well, explains Felix, it turns out that a one-eyed monk had brought them the bones, claiming to be a brother fromtheir house, “and for that they rewarded him with thirty gold pieces.”

Charles, Martin, and Felix are at a loss to know who this mystery monk is until the peasant woman returns with word about the “real saint,” the one who’s been working miracles at Bernay.  “My son-in-law,” she tells them smugly, “saw it with his own eye!”  That’s right, “eye,” not “eyes.”  Is it merely a coincidence that the woman’s minstrel son-in-law and the monk slash con artist each have but a single eye?

This is just the beginning of Incorruptible’s high jinks, which lead up to one of the cleverest money-making schemes ever thought up by a band of monks—digging up corpses from the monastery cemetery, boiling the bones, and selling them to rival monasteries and convents as the remains of saints. Not entire skeletons, mind you.  There really aren’t that many of them to bring in the big bucks—or whatever they called their money back then. Brother Martin comes up with what can only be described as divine inspiration.  The brothers of Priseaux can “sell them for parts!” 

Theatre 40’s production of Incorruptible has been cast to perfection, beginning with a quietly scene-stealing Michael Bonabel as Brother Martin, his off-handed dry humor sometimes recalling Paul Lynde at his funniest.  Robert Mackenzie adds just enough gravitas to the role of Brother Charles to keep the evening’s proceedings from ever becoming too over-the top, and the same can be said for Esther Levy Richman’s marvelously subtle work as the tell-it-like-it-is peasant woman. David Reynolds makes the most of his every minute on stage as the appropriately named Olf, a well-meaning giant of a monk whose interruptions inevitably provoke consternation from Brother Charles. John T. Cogan does winning work as boyishly cute Brother Felix, who has a hard time forgetting the “frolicking” he once did with his unfortunately drowned girlfriend.  Kate Janson has many amusing moments as Jack’s “wife of sorts” Marie, and proves herself a great sport as she allows herself to be carried and dragged hither and thither in a burlap bag.  Julie Sanford ups the comic ante with her 11th hour appearance as a very pissed-off Mother Abbess Agatha. 

Finally, in a turnaround from his dramatic leading man roles in Dangerous Corner and Violet Sharp, handsome Shawn Savage proves himself equally adept at comedy, particularly physical comedy, as one-eyed Jack.  Whether juggling a grand total of TWO balls (count’em!) or singing a very silly “Hey ho, alas lackaday … Hey ho nonny nonny derry down” or carrying around an entirely living, breathing “corpse” to hilarious effect, Shawn makes the strongest comedic impression in a comedically gifted cast.

Director Paul Millet shows just the right screwball touch, without ever letting things get too broad or out of hand. 

Jeff G. Rack’s set nicely approximates a 13th Century monastery, with some clever added touches in Act 2 as the bone business begins to pay off.  Costume designer Christine Cover Ferro has created some realistically “distressed” robes for the brothers, and a spiffy new set (with logos no less) for the second act.  Meghan Hong’s lighting and Bill Froggatt’s sound complete an all-around fine production design.

Incorruptible finds fun and laughter in the most unlikely of places. It is without a doubt the funniest screwball comedy ever written about 13th Century monks–and that’s very funny indeed.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Through May 21.

–Steven Stanley
May 6, 2009
                                                                         Photos: Ed Krieger

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