Corruptible characters, 'Incorruptible' vision

Michael Hollinger is the wrong sex and religion to be a yenta, but give him that honorary title: Minus his inadvertent matchmaking, Collaborative Arts Theatre might not exist.

Joe Copley and Elise Wilkinson met in 2005, acting in BareBones Theatre's staging of Hollinger's "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf." They founded a new company, one devoted to classic and contemporary drama. Now the three reunite in spirit Thursday, when Collaborative opens Hollinger's "Incorruptible."

"I like that," says the Philadelphia-based playwright. "In the original production of 'Incorruptible,' the actors playing Jack and Marie fell in love, got married, then had two kids. I'm bringing people together."

And, perhaps, dividing them philosophically. "Incorruptible," a comedy on its face, asks us to think about faith, cynicism and the possibility of miracles in a world where spiritual and physical poverty abound.

Jack is a scurrilous juggler in the Middle Ages who passes off bones as the relics of a saint, selling them to an abbey that attracts rich pilgrims. (Marie is Jack's love interest.) The brothers at the monastery where the real saint's remains lie - a ragtag bunch who can barely keep the joint open - blackmail Jack into making them a destination for miraculous healing, too.

"I didn't stumble across the idea of holy relics until I was 30," says Hollinger, now 48. At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine he saw a sign that said the finger of a saint was in the basement. "I was so intrigued by the quest for God through body parts that I did a lot of research right away."

Hollinger had worked for a nonprofit theatrical company that did world premieres of plays by little-known authors. So he felt a kinship with impoverished worshippers trying to keep their monastery afloat.

"Like them, we had high ideals and low budgets," he says, laughing. "I realized the monks were in a bind and struggling with the slippery slope of whether their means (justify) the ends. I found that close to home."

Hollinger, associate professor of theater at Villanova University, started his career with a bow in his hands, not a pen.

He earned a bachelor of music in viola performance from Oberlin Conservatory in 1984 before getting a master of arts in theater from Villanova.

Violists must be keen observers, because they follow the leadership of the first violinist in a quartet. Did that training help him as a writer?

"The ability to be attuned to others helped me as a dramaturge, which I was for eight years. You're profoundly involved in rehearsals, but your work (analyzing the play for the cast) shouldn't stand out.

"As a writer, I think in terms of orchestration, the way voices come together in combinations. Maybe two people will speak sotto voce for five minutes and BOOM! Here comes another person. I use the terms 'beat' and 'long pause' and 'silence' a lot in stage directions to (create) a kind of rhythmic interplay of lines."

Hollinger once said he learned that plays tell the playwright what they're about, not the other way around. That was true of "Incorruptible."

"Everyone in it is on a faith journey, whether it's blind faith or not," he says. "When I began my research, I was tilted toward the world of the sham. But as I studied cases of miracles attributed to relics, (I adopted) greater humility.

"There are shams, and there are events inexplicable by any other means. I found this paradox extremely rich, and I didn't expect the paradox to be true."