Surprises are plentiful at the new Collaborative Arts Theatre comedy, Incorruptible, and they begin as soon as you enter Duke Energy Theatre. This is the first production in the 21-year history of the Duke that has adopted arena staging — and with The Elephant Man still in residence over in Plaza Midwood, surely the first time that two such stagings have ever been up at the same time in the Queen City. A veritable blizzard of surprises pelts us at the end of Act 2 as confusion and turmoil reign at the monastery in Priseaux, France, back in 1250 A.D.
At this late point, Abbot Charles and his brother monks prepare for the arrival of the Pope. His Holiness was previously diverted to the nearby Bernay Abbey, where the miracle-working bones of St. Foy were fraudulently on display — and somehow working miracles anyway. Priseaux is the true home of the St. Foy relic, but dem dry bones haven't worked a miracle these 13 years, sort of like a dormant volcano to the faithful.
The Foy over yonder in Bernay wasn't stolen. No, a one-eyed minstrel named Jack swindled Abess Agatha, scoring 30 pieces of silver for the bones of a pig farmer. With the income stream from pilgrims and cripples all dried up, the conniving Brother Martin, Charles's second-in-command, manages to get his extortionist claws into Jack and pick his brain on his special grave-robbing, corpse-processing skills.
Quicker than you can say His-Holiness-travels-back-to-Rome-and-Brother-Martin-writes-convincingly-enough-that-the-Pontiff-makes-a-return-trip, the Priseaux monastery has become a fake holy saints' relics factory, filling bulk orders all over Europe. There is one bustling scene, before Charles runs low on inventory, when — aided by numerous promotional and shipping anachronisms — Priseaux's traffic in relics resembles a thriving eBay operation.
Satire targeted at religious institutions and clergy was more vicious when Geoffrey Chaucer was wielding the pen, but this will do nicely for now. What finally attracts the Pope to Priseaux, triggering a flurry of surprises, is a neat little surprise in itself. For it turns out that, in playwright Michael Hollinger's twisted Dark Ages, Incorruptible wasn't just a lowly adjective. No, an Incorruptible was a saint so hallowed that his (or her) body hadn't decayed after death.
Most of the surprises that ensue are delightful, but a central one — Jack's religious epiphany moments after smuggling his girlfriend into the abbey in violation of his monkish vows — doesn't even have flimsy underpinnings. Still, Chaz Pofahl steers through this incongruity as gracefully as possible, clearly becoming the emotional center of the turmoil we're witnessing, our hero by default. The force of Pofahl's goodness as Jack is such that Tom Scott, as the agonized, wishy-washy abbot, must return Jack's 30 pieces to get back in our good graces.
In his directorial debut, Peter Smeal should have made more of this faith-affirming moment to buttress the comedy's overall architecture, but overall, he shepherds his actors well and deftly utilizes the arena space — and the set he designed. Joe Copley descends into a delicious greediness we haven't seen from him before, discarding his usual urbanity as the opportunistic Brother Martin. As the oafish Brother Olf, Matthew Corbett mountainously treads familiar ground, while Lee Thomas, as the cuddlesome, lovelorn Brother Felix, is also in his comfort zone.
To his credit, Hollinger works some colorful women into his tapestry. As Jack's girl Marie, Glynnis O'Donoghue manages to play a pivotal role in the denouement with comical reluctance, transformed from a sexual object into a sacred one. Joanna Gerdy steals a scene or two as Marie's vulgar mom, grubbily mixing commerce with devout faith, and Julie Janorschke Gawle sails majestically into the final scenes as the vengeful Abbess Agatha, a termagant for all seasons.