Mark McKinney, of the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, used to do a routine where he stood before a stained-glass window and delivered a mock-folksy, vowel-stretching testimony about his own persona: “I think the time has never been more right, more propitious for the preacher character. All you gotta do is look down to the southern United States—you can see that televangelists and preachers are fast eclipsing rock and roll musicians as the drug-poppin’, tax-weaselin’, prostitute-pumpin’ bad boys of pop culture!”
Brothers and sisters, that was 15 years ago, back when our president’s daddy was in office and “red state” still suggested “red scare” to some folks. In reality, it seems the time is always right for poking the Christians, with Catholics and Protestant Bible-belters running neck-and-neck in front of the humanist/humorist hordes bearing flaming torches and sharp tongues.
Michael Hollinger wrote Incorruptible, his “dark comedy about the Dark Ages,” in 1996, but its setting is some 750 years earlier, in a pathetic French abbey with a malfunctioning relic. The bones of St. Foy lie, gathering dust, on the altar of the Monastery of Priseaux, but no one much credits their purported holy powers except a pesky peasant woman (Lynn Steinmetz) who wants to pray for her ailing cow but can’t cough up enough cash for the “offering” demanded by Brother Martin (Bill Largess). This money-grubber has to grub all the money he can: Whether pilgrims bring miracles or miracles bring pilgrims is a chicken-or-egg conundrum the brothers don’t explore; all they know is that both bring money, and both are in short supply. When a one-eyed, atheist minstrel/con man (Chris Davenport) enters the story, some pretty unholy doings ensue—schemed up not by the eye-patched grifter, mind you, but by the men in the brown habits. Soon fraud, grave-robbing, and possibly a little murder ensue—all for the sake of Priseaux’s poor, of course.
It’s hard to strike a consistent tone in a loopy, irreverent comedy such as this, and director Steven Carpenter and his Washington Stage Guild cast are almost there. Actors Bill Hamlin, as an abbot whose faith is foundering, and Laura Giannarelli, as his harridan abbess sister, offer solid performances, as does Jason Stiles as an understated Brother Felix. Ben Shovlin doesn’t quite have the dark menace occasionally required of Brother Olf—think Of Mice and Men’s Lennie, transferred to a comedy—though he clearly understands that Olf is an oaf; his slack-jawed admiration of the minstrel’s lameass act is only one of the finely tuned details in his performance. The weakest part of the evening comes in a crucial fight scene; the actors have the requisite broadness, but not the smoothness. However, the players’ affection for their roles and for the play suggests they’ll get it right sooner rather than later.
Incorruptible is a well-crafted farce, with a sweet nature more akin to that of Arsenic and Old Lace than of Sweeney Todd, but with as many corpses as either. Hollinger casts out details and then reels them in to their conclusion, and he even offers ideas on faith for the more theologically inclined of his viewers to chat about over post-show brandy. As in the best satires, it’s not belief per se that’s being attacked, but the aspects of dogma that are most open to evil exploitation—or the ones that are just plain silly.
The program offers a note from the playwright: “This sort of thing really happened.” I don’t doubt it.
Nor do I doubt that modern American Christianity is populated by the characters portrayed by Mario Baldessari and Jim Helein, the duo also known as Dropping the Cow, in the Charter Theatre’s Sacred Cows: intolerant office workers who bitch about their Jewish brethren’s getting too many holidays, even unfun ones such as Yom Kippur; churchy thespians who mount elaborate “Hell Houses” to scare the Jesus into you; smug chat-show hosts who snark at how Amy Grant’s marriage and career have foundered since she stopped addressing her love songs to God. In this series of skits, Baldessari and Helein do a decent job of embodying these characters—most of them as stereotyped as McKinney’s Kids in the Hall Bible-thumper, and thus as familiar. (Oddly enough, I don’t think there’s a pedophile-priest joke in the whole two hours, and there are only a couple of direct shots at the ungodly Godliness of Dubya’s America.)
So why was there so little laughter on the night I attended? A dead audience equals dying performers when it comes to the Cows’ brand of comedy. Both guys occasionally flubbed lines, and their timing was uneven. Had I not known they’d been doing this sort of thing since 1989, I’d have thought they just needed to get to know each other better. Or maybe the moral is “Don’t go to religious-humor shows on Sundays.”
Then again, they’ve set the bar high, with a wide range of comedic styles. A sketch featuring a foil-pie-plate-headed Baldessari proclaiming to a baffled Helein, “Greetings, O leopard who is here mending your socks by night!…You will find the babe wrapped in modeling clothes and lying to a stranger” suggests the verbal silliness of Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python; God’s appearance on a late-night talk show is more like a droller moment on Saturday Night Live. (“Dropping the cow” refers to Lorne Michaels’ explanation, to his SNL writers, of how the Pythons escaped sketches without good endings.) And one of the evening’s best vignettes, in which the guys share popcorn and inane small talk while watching The Passion of the Christ (“What kind of candy do you eat at the Crucifixion, anyway?”), is satire with an intriguing target, rather than mere buffoonery.
Not that buffoonery is bad, but these guys are smart performers, and their smarter pieces work better. In particular, the Sunday-school class in which a smug Helein informs curious-kid Baldessari that people who haven’t been witnessed to about Christ will be damned—“They’re gonna burn in hell because of us,” he says matter-of-factly—reminded me why I lost so much sleep in my evangelically warped childhood.
Both performers are individually strong. Helein has a big, warm voice—you might know it from his commentaries on WAMU’s Metro Connection—and a big, warm presence to match. His partner is a compact man with arresting, intense eyes and an almost too-soft voice. They’re superb writers, and they—and certainly director Keith Bridges—have paced the show pretty well, with graceful set changes and character transitions. They don’t need divine intervention to save their show, just more people in that church-basement theater in Georgetown. That shouldn’t take a miracle.CP