Playcrafters’ ‘Incorruptible,’ a comedy set in the Dark Ages, truly shines in the second act

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For 21st Century Media News Service

Michael Hollinger’s comedy “Incorruptible” — now playing at Playcrafters of Skippack — paints a cynical and dark picture of, well, the Dark Ages. When a financially struggling monastery loses its claim to being the resting place of the remains of Saint Foy, it looks like the parish is at risk of losing even the meager revenue stream provided by the occasional pilgrim. Soon the brothers will no longer have the funds to provide charity for the sick and the poor of their town. Then a conniving pagan balladeer (Juan Caceres) crosses their paths, and suddenly the brothers look like they might be able to save the monastery — if they are willing to commit an act that most people would consider unholy.  The show continues at 8 p.m. Oct. 9, 10 and 11.
Hollinger’s clever writing has a sense of humor about it that is intellectual without skimping on the one-liners. The historic and religious quips recall the era in Woody Allen’s career when the filmmaker made literary satires such as “Love and Death.” At the same time, there’s a real philosophical center to Hollinger’s work. Abbot Charles (Ross Druker) fears becoming like his father, a baker who cut his flour with sawdust to survive tough times. The morally righteous abbot, however, is soon blackmailing the balladeer, becoming the reluctant overseer of a massive scam involving severed limbs, tricky bookkeeping, and murder. As the monks get carried away with their plot, the brothers must confront the question of their utilitarianism and ask whether the ends truly justify their grotesque means.
The pleasure of Playcrafters’ production comes in the second act, as the characters’ moral fortitude becomes completely and utterly corrupted and the staging turns in a more farcical direction. Caceres and onstage wife Emily West pull off some fairly impressive physical comedy. Nancy Kadwill brings a good deal of sass to the role of a peasant woman, playing well opposite the staid and conservative clergy. The supporting cast traffics well in the art of the caricature, with outstanding performances from Ron Lake as the oafish Brother Olf and Lauren Rozensky Flanagan as the abbot’s loud and vindictive sister, Abbess Agatha.
The first act by comparison felt like it missed similar opportunities to find the humor in the rich script, often going for the punchline without delighting in the set-up to the joke that makes it all work. So often in dark plays with comedic elements of the sort seen here, the most fun moments are those right when the virtuous abandon their remaining piety — think of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett singing about baking the upper class of London into meat pies. Not quite so here, where the rhythm achieved doesn’t always lend itself to the anticipation that some jokes require.
Nonetheless, the story with all its twists and turns remains engaging throughout. I saw the play opening night, a Thursday, with a light crowd — rarely the ideal setting for comedic performers. By the time this review is published, I would expect many of the opening night hiccups to be resolved, and perhaps with larger crowds feeding their energy, the cast will do in the first act what they already do for the second. For when the production works, it reveals the complexity of Hollinger’s work, a thoughtful comedy about morality that never sermonizes or condescends.

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