CORPUS CHRISTI: The New Testament told in a radically new way

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

9. Self-Expression

8. Self-Knowledge

7. History

6. The Body

5. Globalization

4. Self-Empowerment

3. Social Change

2. Education

1. Creativity

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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CorpusChristi-imagePhoto Credit:

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Acts of Faith

SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring Choreography by Starr Foster

“Saltwater Bones,” a voluminous skirt solo, turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening.

SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring 8 Works by Starr Foster Dance Project with Music by Joey Luck

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB’s The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: Friday, January 12th @8pm. Saturday, January 13 @3pm, 5pm, 7pm. Sunday, January 14th @ 3pm, 5pm.

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission. $25 Opening Night Performance and Reception with Artists. Order tickets @ http://www.browpapertickets.org

Info: (804) 304-1523 or http://www.starrfosterdance.org



As part of an ongoing mission to collaborate with other artists, Starr Foster Dance Project (SFDP) has started the new year with a unique collaboration with eight photographers whose work inspired the eight short dances that share their titles. Eight intriguing and very different photographs by photographers both local and long distance hung in the lobby of TheatreLAB’s The Basement, and on opening night six of the eight lens artists were on sight to share their work and experience with the dancers and audience.

Undulating Reflections, a work for six dancers, was inspired by a photograph by Dennis Lieberman.  Set to the somewhat anxiety-provoking music Surveillance by Canadian industrial band Noise Unit and with gorgeous deep blue costumes (tank tops with briefs for the men and ruffled skirts for the women) designed by Johann Stegmeir, Undulating Reflections lingers sumptuously in weight sharing, leaning, moments of touching and almost touching.

Elizabeth Whitson’s single flower, Beauty in the End, was the inspiration for a duet, performed Friday night by Erick Hooten and Heather Rhea O’Connor, to an original score by Joey Luck. Hooten, large and muscular, and O’Connor, deceptively delicate-looking, sustained an ethereal, floating quality throughout, supported by what I think was a cello that anchored Luck’s somewhat somber score. They remained connected and intimate, even with people watching from two sides as the black box space was set up as a traverse or corridor stage. The final image was of the two dancers stretched out on the floor, Hooten’s face hoovering slightly over O’Connor as the two seemed to share the same breath. The blue theme was continued with O’Connor’s long, soft dress and Hooten’s matching tank with solid long pants, both designed by Foster.

The mood changed considerably with Find the Light, a work inspired by Clare Midock’s photo, which featured a chair and her young daughter. Anna Branch, O’Connor, Angela Palminsano, and Brittany Powers initially took turns dancing on and around a sturdy wooden chair, each revisiting and modifying the phrases of her predecessor.  They draped themselves over the chair, hung over the back, slithered under it, sat near it, focused on a mysterious mission as a blinding bright light focused on them. Find the Light is set to a hauntingly beautiful cello solo by Peter Gregson, and Johann Stegmeir designed the orange ombre jumpsuits.

The first half of the program closed with the delightful, somewhat humorous Searching, inspired by Henrietta Near’s optical illusion photograph of people taking pictures in Maymont Park under the watchful eyes of a superimposed cat. Returning to the blue and black color scheme (with costumes by Foster and original music by Luck), the six dancers explored variations of searching. One moved a chair close to and stared directly at a member of the audience. Others sought out new spaces, sitting in chairs along the wall with the audience in the all-too-brief snippet of choreography.

A brief intermission provided a welcome opportunity to revisit the photographs for the upcoming choreography. (It would have been helpful to have a moment of lighting between each dance to give the audience a chance to check the titles and connect them with the photographs as well.)

The second half of the program began with what turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, a voluminous skirt solo, Saltwater Bones, inspired by the underwater photography of Cristina Peters. O’Connor’s white skirt, designed and constructed by Foster, performed doubly duty as costume and prop. Sometimes it billowed out gracefully, other times it appeared to entrap her. At the end, I found myself releasing the breath I did not realize I had been holding. Luck also created original music for this solo.

Angela Douglas’ photograph Flock (yes, it is a photograph of birds) manifested as a bouncy quartet (Davis, Hooten, Palminsano, and Powers) filled with quick, sharp movements in stark contrast to the sustained phrases of preceding dances. The accompanying music is, somewhat ironically, titled Nature Fights Back, performed by prepared pianist Hauschka (nee Volker Bertelmann). Foster designed the black tank tops and blue/teal pants for this delightful dance thin which the rhythm and flow was briefly interrupted by somewhat awkward preparation for a group lift.

Pas de Doe proved to be a delightful play on words, a duo inspired by Mike Harrell’s photo of two deer. Branch and O’Connor (who appeared I six of the eight dances on the opening night program) started off like two bulls sizing up one another in the glaring side lights, but by the end they were dancing in unison and looked as if they were about to take flight. Stegmeir designed their soft salmon-colored tunics and white pants, and the pounding music, Hephaestus, was by Chris Cutler and Thomas DiMuzio.

The program closed with Hanakapai Falls, inspired by a stunning painting of a Hawaiian waterfall. Rachel DeFrank’s deep colors, marked by shades of blue, green, and purple, were printed on a metal plate.  Branch, Davis, and Hooten resurrected Foster’s tilting movements, seen earlier in Undulating Reflections, with hints of classical lines and use of space in the partnering. Stegmeir’s blue gray pallet and the music, Sequence (four) by Warren Zielinski Magdalena Filipczak, Laurie Anderson, Richard Harwood and Peter Gregson, both supported and enhanced the concept of waterfall, making for a beautiful and satisfying conclusion to an evening of contemporary dance in Richmond.


Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.


Photo Credits (clockwise, starting at top left):

  1. Dancers Erick Hooten, Anna Branch and Ryan Davis leap in a new work Inspired by Rachel DeFrank’s photograph of “Hanakapai Falls” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  2. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten in a duet inspired by Elizabeth Whitson’s photograph, “Beauty in the End” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  3. Dancer Kate Neal descends in a new work inspired by Cristina Peter’s photograph “Saltwater Bones” Photo Credit: S. Foster
  4. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten share an embrace in “Beauty in the End” inspired by a photograph by Elizabeth Whitson Photo Credit: Doug Hayes