Most theater companies won’t touch it, so Rarely Done mounts the controversial Corpus Christi
Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the Wyoming murder of gay college student Mathew Shepard, was one of director Dan Tursi’s greatest successes. Seen here in June 2004, it is also a signal work in Tursi’s output, a display of his deftness in handling mercurial shifts in tone as well as his ability to keep a large number of people completely engaged at any given moment.
It turns out that Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, the current show from Tursi’s Rarely Done Productions at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., has much in common with The Laramie Project. Putting aside the understandable controversy as well as the rage of the religious right, we can see that both plays are about the death of a blameless gay man in red-state America. Controversy? Rage?
The action is set in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1950s, which turns out to be where playwright McNally, born in 1939, spent his teenage years. We follow the exploits of a young man named Joshua (Ryan Diana). “Don’t call him Jesus,” an off-stage voice shouts, “people will think he’s a Mexican.” Joshua calls a dis parate lot to follow him, including a lawyer, a doctor, a hairdresser and a street hustler, and bids them to spread his message of love and tolerance. He attends a gay wedding ceremony. And things are not going well. He is beset from without and betrayed from within. Guys called “Romans” (one with an MGM brass helmet) strip, beat and crucify him with the proclamation, “Joshua, king of the queers.”
This may sound like a stick in the eye to pious believers, and has often been received that way. There were bomb threats at the October 1998 New York City opening (one day after Matthew Shepard’s body was found), and it has been the most frequently closed-before-opening show of the last 12 years, especially if on a college campus or if any public funds come near the production. The quote from the Book of Leviticus about homosexuality’s being an “abomination” is stated and shrugged off. It’s not just the nuts from the Westboro Baptist Church who think homosexuals are sinners in need of repentance. Gubernatorial candidate Carl Palladino said last fall that he rejected “brainwashing,” the suggestion that gays could be considered as acceptable as straights.
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Getting past the concept of the gay Jesus, two passages are likely to provoke the most offense. In one Joshua confronts Philip (Derek Potocki), the Greek apostle, whose HIV-positive status is portrayed as the equivalent of biblical leprosy. Joshua heals him with an embrace but does not advise him to misbehave no more.
The second is a flip remark. When Joshua slaps the macho, sports-loving priest Matthew (C.J. Young) for denouncing him, a voice calls out, “Hey, what about turning the other cheek.” Which brings Joshua’s response, “Do not take everything I say so seriously.”
Despite all these (which some will be unable to abide, along with the frequent profanity, mostly from straight characters), there is every evidence that McNally is a spiritual person who wants us to admire Joshua, his protagonist. His approach is a bizarre mixture of the medieval and the postmodern, which takes some patience to navigate and most easily can be misunderstood. He’s not to be confused with the sneering village atheists of yore who sought only to travesty the revealed word.
The medieval first. The last two-thirds of Corpus Christi is essentially a passion play resembling those surviving from 14th- and 15th-century towns like Wakefield. In them unschooled playwrights refashioned the Gospel stories in the homely raiment of their own lives. McNally’s Joshua is immersed in now archaic American popular culture, keeps a picture of James Dean in his room and has seen East of Eden 15 times. Here the trouble is not an impish irreverence but rather a heavy earnestness. We know how this story comes out.
Attempts at late comic relief, like having a parochial schoolboy (Scott Austin) remember sadistic details, don’t work.
Where McNally differs from those medieval townies, of course, is that his faith is not simple or guileless. He appears to be a syncretist who has borrowed substantially from Eastern religion. This is the same man who wrote the Hinduism-friendly Perfect Ganesh, produced twice in these parts. When his John the Baptist (Gabe Mirizio) annoints the apostles, he intones, “I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I adore you.” There is only one divine human in the New Testament, but a host of human divinities would have to have originated along the Ganges, not a small city in Texas.
Moving forward, the postmodernist framing of Corpus Christi is actually more striking to the audience than is the audacious premise of divinity-homosexuality. The entire cast of 13 remains in modern dress, consisting of chino pants and white shirts. When they are baptized they strip down to briefs and are introduced under their real-life names and equivalents as apostles: Mark Ameigh is identified as Andrew, Scott Austin is James, and so on. After assuming their stage identities, each player goes on to take roles in the Texas upbringing of Joshua/Jesus.
All players remain on the tight Jazz Central stage all the time, sometimes serving as scenery or furniture. Thus, characters in Joshua’s life seem to pop up around a club of standing bodies, a device well-used by gifted comic and reliable scene-stealer Jimmy Wachter. With a falsetto, a black wimple and an accent, he can be a threatening nun for a few moments and then disappear, only to pop up again as a different ad-hoc character. Bigger, beefier Vinny Delaney needs a wig to give us Joshua’s blowsy mother Mary. This does not appear to be so much an affront to Catholic Mariolatry as it is an attempt to make the Bible story local and Texan, as in the Wakefield plays cycle. This very pregnant Mary waddles along, warbling, “I’m a virgin, Joe,” and gets this downcast shot back from her husband, “Nobody knows that better than I do.”
Then again, some of the Apostles speak in their own characters, such as Vinnie Delaney’s Peter, a boastful blowhard, and later, betraying coward. The potentially most interesting character is, of course, Judas, who appears here as a self-important yuppie still in need of approval: “I own three restaurants. Just try to get in.” The experienced Ty Marshal, wellremembered as a killer in Laramie Project, dominates every scene where Judas appears, but McNally gives the character less material than, say, the Judas in Jesus Chris Superstar.
Ultimately, director Tursi puts most responsibility on the vulnerability of the Joshua created by Ryan Diana. He’s best-remembered in these parts for the role of CB (Charlie Brown) in Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (2008), Bert Royal’s unauthorized, irreverent takeoff on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strip. Defying copyright restrictions is hardly equivalent to flirting with blasphemy, but both Royal’s CB and McNally’s Joshua are wellmeaning sorts who suffer for their generosity.o
This production runs through March 26. See Times Table for information.
A passel of Apostles: Cast members assemble for Rarely Done’s Corpus Christi.