CORPUS CHRISTI: by Terrence McNally
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Triangle Players performing at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, Richmond, VA 23230 [Part of the Acts of Faith theater festival]
Performances: January 31 – February 24, 2018
Ticket Prices: Tickets $10-$30
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
Humor me for a minute – this really is going somewhere. In a post in the “tcgcircle” (Theatre Communications Group, 2014) blog, Kevin Brown generated a list of “The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century.” In short, from #10 to #1 (the most important reason), David Letterman style, they are:
10. Human beings
6. The Body
3. Social Change
Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s passion play about a gay Jesus, hits all ten of these reasons in significant ways – but don’t worry, I won’t go into detail on all ten of them. My point is that when this play was first staged in New York in 1998 – and at many subsequent productions and attempted productions – Corpus Christi was condemned as blasphemous and worse. It was the target of protests and threats of violence. It was condemned by The Catholic League and others, often sight unseen. Even when invited to come into the theater to see the show and engage in dialogue, many protesters refused. The playwright even received death threats. Perhaps this is why a police officer was stationed outside the theater on opening night – an uncommon sight at a Richmond theater. Check the list – I think the events surrounding the production as well as the content of the play itself covers all ten items, except perhaps Globalization.
As staged by Richmond Triangle Players, a cast of 13 men portray the New Testament commonly known as The Passion of Christ, from birth through crucifixion. Dexter Ramey directed in a brilliantly unobtrusive way that allowed the familiar story to unfold with several unusual twists, well-placed and generous doses of humor, an earnest and overwhelmingly successful attempt to get to the heart of the matter, and simple staging consisting of a few benches, a large crucifix, and a trunk of props (e.g., a crown of thorns, a crucible, a flask of vinegar, large nails, a hammer, a flagrum – the type of whip used to scourge Jesus).
In the tradition of a medieval morality play, there is little or no scenery. There is no suspense; the audience already knows how the story ends. The purpose is to open dialogue, to use the familiarity of ritual and repetition to make us think in new ways about things we already know. “This is how we pray – arms open, heads up.” Joshua teaches his disciples not to bow their heads in fear. This is something we can all relate to but may hold special significance to the LGBTQ community.
At the start of the play, the actors change into white shirts and khakis and each member of the cast is identified by name and baptized by John (Matt Bloch) who gives each his biblical name. The play freely blends New Testament theology with modern-day anachronisms; there are Roman centurions and crucifixions, and there are also twentieth-century clothes and occupations. Andrew (Andrew Etheredge, who quite by chance gets to keep his real name) is a masseur, Matthew (Tim Goad) is a lawyer, and Judas Iscariot (Chandler Hubbard) is a restaurateur. Other disciples include John (Matt Bloch) a writer, James (Eddie Webster) a teacher, Peter (Bartley Mullin) a fisherman, Philip (Stevie Rice) a hustler, Bartholomew (Trevor Worden) a doctor, Thomas (Lucian Restivo) a doctor, James the Less (Cooper Sved) an architect, Simon (TeDarryl) a singer, and Thaddeus (Ethan Williams, a senior at The Steward School who, at age 18 is the youngest cast member) a hairdresser.
Corpus Christi is set in the 1950s in the south Texas city of the same name. There Jesus – named Joshua because Jesus sounds “too Mexican” is born in a cheesy motel. A couple can be heard having loud, vocal sex in the next room. Little baby Jesus is a rather large rag doll with long blonde pigtails. The Virgin Mary, as are all the other characters, is played by a male. Adam Turck, who plays Joshua/Jesus, gives voice to the baby Jesus and transitions seamlessly into the role as the Messiah grows into a child, and later a troubled and friendless teen who struggles with his sexual identify and leaves home as soon as he can to begin his role as The Son of God.
A true ensemble, each actor, except Turck, I think, plays multiple roles, both biblical and modern. Turck and Hubbard have the most intense and intimate situations – but Joshua makes it clear that though people can touch his body, they can’t touch Him. I am sure this would not assuage the protesters — if they took the time to hear it. Some situations that arise are less controversial than others. For instance, what would it have been like for The Son of Man to attend a Catholic School or a public high school in Texas? What was it like for Mary to take care of Him? In Corpus Christi, she makes an attempt to bring normalcy to His life by enrolling Him in Boy Scouts, ballroom dancing lessons, and drama class – all of which, it seems, fail to help him fit in.
McNally, in the preface to his play, wrote, “it would be naïve of me to think I could write a play about a young gay man who would come to be identified as a Christ figure without stirring up a protest.” What an understatement. It probably doesn’t help that much of the dialogue in the second half of the play (about 110 minutes long without intermission) is read or quoted directly from the Bible. In one scene Joshua officiates a same-sex marriage between James and Bartholomew. There are sexual situations and lots of foul language. The line between church and theater is often blurred.
Controversies aside, Corpus Christi opens up a dialogue about the role of gay men in the contemporary Christian church. It is a dialogue many do not want to address. In a documentary about a production of the play staged at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA, McNally is quoted as saying, “I’m as made in God’s image as the next person.” In the final analysis, Corpus Christi does much of what theater is intended to do, and some of what the church thinks it does. McNally’s closing words stand for themselves: “If we have offended you, then so be it. He loved everybody.”
Note: A documentary about a production of the play at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA can be found on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Corpus-Christi-Terrence-McNally/dp/B00NK9J4OQ/ref=tmm_aiv_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1412626097
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
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