Danville Express

Living - January 26, 2007

Dark Ages serve up dark comedy

'Incorruptible' a hilarious look at religious ironies

by Natalie O'Neill

At first glance, it would seem that playwright Michael Hollinger couldn't have picked worse characters or setting for an onstage comedy. Monks in the Dark Ages aren't exactly known for their hilarity. And it's tough to make a rundown monastery glitter with comedic opportunity.

But "Incorruptible," a dark and biting farce about the ironies of organized religion, spoofs piousness in ways that are hilarious, poignant and relevant today. Setting and characters are used as devises to help the audience distance themselves from religion in order to have a laugh.

As the play begins, the audience learns that these 13th-century French monks are poor, hopeless and hungry - and to top it off they haven't had a miracle in years. Act One opens on an abbot kicking out an impoverished woman who has come to the monastery to pray.

"I haven't got a penny!" she pleads.

"Well," he snaps, "then you haven't got a prayer!"

Desperate times call for desperate measures and when the monks discover they can make quick money by passing the bones of cadavers off as the bones of saints, their corruption spirals into absurdity.

Poor people are robbed, cadavers are stashed, and the modern day equivalent of a hit man is hired - all in the pursuit of purity and faith. Eventually the Pope's arrival is promised, but only if the monks can produce an incorruptible (a dead person who is so holy he or she won't decay). This allows plenty of time for mistaken identity and slapstick humor.

The play's characters are reminiscent of the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride," a likely intentional move on the part of "Incorruptible" director Jerry Motta. The production holds archetypal but dramatically effective characters, like the "the shrewd and weasely antagonist," "the big, dumb giant," "the clown," "the ingénue," and "the young love interest."

Ben Ortega's line delivery as Jack, the unskilled one-eyed minstrel, has the audience in stitches as he finds himself in one compromising situation after another. When Jack is hired to perform for the group of stiff, serious monks, he fails miserably and his clumsy attempt at juggling and telling jokes is delightfully awkward.

While some of the characters seem one-dimensional at times, that direction choice was wise for the purposes of pace and humor. If the audience, for example, felt too much empathy for the antagonist, laughs would have withered. And if the simple child-like "giant" would have evolved morally it would have just been no fun.

Role Players Ensemble actors created snappy comic timing and intriguing chemistry between characters - exceptional for small theater.

Through the play, Hollinger uses situational comedy to illustrate how humans are capable of bending their beliefs in the name of a cause. The irony of these situations induce both laughter and ideas.

For example, anyone who has ever been hit up for money inappropriately at a religious congregation may recognize the show is flecked with funny but universal truths. And anyone who can appreciate smart sexual innuendo and word play will get a chuckle. In the bigger picture, one can even relate the notion of killing in the name of God to religious wars, past and present.

With heavy themes like this, the play has the potential to become preachy or offensive, but Role Players Ensemble succeeds in making the audience reflect without making them cringe.

The message isn't shoved down the audience's throat, but rather tossed up into the air, giving the viewer the chance to grasp the ideas or let them fall to the floor. Despite the sometimes morbid humor, the audience is granted a hopeful ending - what this reviewer was secretly wishing for.

Along with setting the stage for laughs, the time period and characters allow the audience to separate themselves from religious affiliation and also to help them recognize pointed but slightly uncomfortable themes.

In life, monks might not be known for their humor and wit, but on stage in Danville this winter they are.

Are you 'Incorruptible'?

What: "Incorruptible" Who: Role Players Ensemble Theatre When: 8 p.m. Jan. 25-27, Feb. 1-3, 8-10; 2 p.m. Jan. 21, 28 and Feb. 4 Where: Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville Tickets: $18-$24 For tickets: Call 314-3463 or visit www.danvilletheatre.com

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