The night that Live Theatre Workshop opened its Etcetera series production of Corpus Christi, which recasts the life of Christ as that of a gay Texan, one audience member sobbed heavily through the final scene. I don't know whether that's because she loves theater or loves Jesus, but either explanation would work. The company has mounted a theatrically effective production of a not entirely successful but well-meaning script, a play that hardly merits the controversy that surrounded its origin.
When Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi was about to open in New York in 1998, the wacko bigots who help give Christianity a bad name threatened to burn down the theater and kill the cast members. The less felonious among them merely picketed. How could they let such a blasphemous show go on? A play about a queer Christ? Heaven forbid. As Fred Phelps, that wacko bigot minister from Kansas, keeps reminding us, God hates fags.
As it turns out, McNally is in no way assaulting Christians or their beliefs. He is simply extending their beliefs a bit further than some are willing to accept; there's divinity in all people, he reminds us, gay as well as straight. McNally's Jesus is more than the King of the Queens. McNally strives to find a place for Jesus in our world, rather than make our world conform to Jesus' primitive historical society. There are many precedents for this, going back to medieval mystery plays.
Here's the problem: Despite depicting Jesus and his apostles as contemporary gay men, McNally doesn't fundamentally alter the story--nor does he find anything truly new in it. He gives us little more than Queer Eye for the Messiah Guy, redecorating the life of Jesus a bit and offering him a change of clothes (white shirt, khaki pants), but not altering the character or his themes.
The 1998 Manhattan Theatre Club premiere opened to strongly negative reviews: The play wasn't blasphemous, the critics said; it was insipid. After all the fuss, the critics were dismayed not to be able to declare the work a masterpiece. Backlash ensued.
Corpus Christi is not a masterpiece, but neither is it a bad play. It's a story of love, betrayal and sacrifice brought down to a more human--more believable--scale. McNally has done this more famously in Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion!, plays free of the historo-theatrical conceits of Corpus Christi.
This play, directed without artifice by Jodi Rankin, begins in ritual. Thirteen actors amble onto the bare, black stage and, one by one, they stand before an actor playing John the Baptist. John calls each actor by his real name, dribbles water on his head and gives him the name of the character he will soon play, declaring, "I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I love you."
Each character then introduces himself to the audience, sometimes quite succinctly. "Thaddeus was a hairdresser," says one. "Anybody got a problem with that?" This looks like fun, but then we see almost nothing of Thaddeus again. Although most of the actors play multiple roles (Mary, prom dates, Romans, a truck driver), McNally hasn't figured out what to do with them all. Four or five wind up with most of the work.
We're warned early on that this is, at heart, an earnest play. "There are no tricks up our sleeves, and we intend no malice," says the actor playing Judas. Thankfully, the script is not cloyingly pious and reverent, but neither is it, in the end, irreverent, despite the facile jokiness of several scenes. "I'm a virgin, Joe," insists the pregnant Mary. Joseph rolls his eyes and sighs, "Nobody knows that better than I do."
Joshua, as McNally calls his Jesus character (Yeshua was his Hebrew name), is born in a motel to a self-absorbed mother who would rather be out dancing. He grows up in McNally's home town, Corpus Christi, Texas. He attends Pontius Pilate High School, where he is bullied for his budding queerness, which is apparent to everyone but Joshua himself. He meets Judas; they become lovers, but eventually, Joshua must go his own way. Lost in the Texas desert, he is tempted by an apparition of James Dean, but resists. He cures a blind, leprous truck driver (yes, a blind driver) of his maladies, and begins to attract a following of young gay professionals who help him spread the word of love by day and disco down at night.
As the story gradually turns serious, there are more appearances by Roman centurions than by high school bullies and James Dean. Although the action begins in 1950s Corpus Christi, by the end, the body of this Christ has migrated to ancient Jerusalem. Why does McNally wimp out at the climax and abandon pop-culture references to the likes of Lucille Ball? He's gotta lotta 'splainin' to do, but perhaps, as a former Catholic schoolboy, he just had to relate the final tragedy without embellishment.
A cast this large is bound to be uneven. There are a couple of new actors here whose roles are small enough to conceal most of their limitations, and there are others whose work is quite promising. The bulk of the lines, however, fall to a few tried-and-true Live Theatre Workshop veterans.
As Joshua, Christopher Johnson--who is growing splendidly as an actor--gracefully conveys the heaviness of the burden of having to love everyone, no matter what; watch him wince a little when each of the disciples kisses his feet. He comes across as a bit naïve in the beginning, often sweet, but not exactly innocent and certainly not simple.
Jeremy Thompson is not an evil Judas, merely an ambivalent one with a cruel streak; his self-love can be extended to take in Joshua, but no one else. McNally sometimes pushes the minor characters into caricature, and Brian Wees and Stephen Frankenfield let him get away with it, but in their main roles of James and Simon Peter, they perform with great honesty.
After the play, a friend of mine asked why works like this always end with the Crucifixion, which is just the preamble to what really counts in Christianity. I posited that the Crucifixion is the end of the human dimension of the story; the Resurrection moves into Christian legend.
The next day, she elaborated on my point: "These plays and films and novels end at the Crucifixion because they are not about the Christian legends. They are about the writer. It is a common male adolescent fantasy--'I came to save the world, was rejected and persecuted, and I forgave and loved "them" anyway.'"
Indeed, McNally is writing about himself here. And so what was initially a controversial piece of theater may in a few years be little more than a gay-pride Easter pageant. But not yet. See this work now, as Live Theatre Workshop presents it with as much integrity as the playwright allows.