KERA Arts Story Search

Looking for events? Click here for the Go See DFW events calendar.

Controversial 'Corpus Christi' Debuts — Without Protests

by Jerome Weeks 5 Jun 2010 4:38 PM

After a Tarleton State University student production of Terrence McNally’s “gay Jesus” play, ‘Corpus Christi,’ was cancelled, after a Fort Worth theater offered to stage the production and then rescinded the offer, after all the controversy, a long-running touring version made its debut Friday at the Cathedral of Hope.


After many Christians were offended by Terrence McNally’s “gay Jesus” play when it premiered in New York in 1998, after productions were publicly condemned in London and Australia, after a condensed student production at Tarleton State University was cancelled in March once Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst declared no state-funded organization should portray acts that are “morally reprehensible,” after Fort Worth’s Rose Marine Theatre offered to stage the student production — and then its board rescinded the offer — after all of the protests and letters-to-the-editor and online outrage, pro and con, that these events triggered and after even Nic Arnzen, the director of the touring version, voiced his concerns about staging the play in Texas (where it’s set), 108 Production’s Corpus Christi came to Dallas and opened at the Cathedral of Hope Friday . . . without a single public protest.

The original Tarleton State student director, John Jordan Otte, even attended the performance with some of his cast.

It’s not as if the Cathedral, which ministers to the gay and lesbian community, was taking chances. Warning signs were posted on the cathedral’s doors announcing that anyone who tried to disrupt the performance would be asked to leave. There were uniformed police posted inside during the show as well as outside in the parking lot. Before the 7:30 p.m. curtain, there were no signs of protestors or vandals — which is what the parking-lot officers said was one concern. During the one-hour-and-40-minute performance, there were no disturbances, and afterwards, officers reported they’d seen and heard nothing out of the ordinary.

The officers said they would return for each of the weekend’s three remaining performances. And oh, this weekend happens to be the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Monday update: Nothing happened n the way of protests for the show’s entire run.

That was the news report. This is the review:

  • Pegasus News review
  • Theater Jones review
  • Sniper’s Love Nest blog
  • I also saw a WFAA-TV news report. The camera truck was at the Cathedral, and I came home Friday night and watched the video, which included scenes from the play and a brief interview with Otte and the Cathedral’s Senior Pastor Jo Hudson. But I can’t find anything on WFAA’s website.

Terrence McNally has written sharper, better plays than Corpus Christi, which feels more or less like Godspell with the gay overtones turned way up. It’s Godspell with more sex and fewer chirpy tunes. McNally has written sharper, better plays — I’ll take a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune over this any day — but he’s unlikely to write any stage piece more controversial. Or, curiously, any piece more autobiographical.

For people without a dog in this controversy — who are neither gays nor conservative Christians and who especially aren’t, say, gays who have wrestled with their Christian faith and their ostracism by mainstream  churches — Corpus Christi will not be the bombshell that the political and religious uproar would suggest. What jarring notes are there were amplified by staging it in the Cathedral of Hope, but this was due more to the play’s sexualized nature, its frequent use of obscenities (and one comic mooning of the audience) than to its cultural and religious politics.

Can’t say I’ve seen anything like it in a church. (Hearing it was another matter; the church’s echoey acoustics garbled lines.)

The play’s cultural and religious politics are pretty much what one might expect. The Jesus figure — here called Joshua, which is akin to the original Hebrew for Jesus, Yeshua — performs loving miracles and preaches an acceptance of sinners, while referring often to how the divine is really within each of us: “God loves us most when we most love each other.” (It’s odd, though, that perhaps the core of Jesus’ ministry, and certainly the statement of his that would seem most at home here — the Sermon on the Mount — isn’t included at all.)

All of this would be blandly unobjectionable, and tilting the whole affair even more on the side of the (open-minded) angels is director Nic Arnzen’s color-blind, gender-blind casting. John the Baptist and almost half the disciples are played by women (which is not specified in McNally’s script). The well-intentioned, tolerant sentiment is at one with the plain, ‘honest,’ self-conscious directing style: The performers are introduced by name but then lovingly ‘baptized’ into their characters; everyone suits up in the same outfit (white shirt, chinos, bare feet). And there are almost no props except two benches, the necessary bread, whip, crown of thorns and, oh yes, a cross.

But the real crux, as it were, for all of the objections is that as he matures, Joshua (James Brandon) comes to recognize that he’s physically attracted to men (after — or perhaps more accurately, despite — having been abused by a Catholic priest-football coach in high school). He travels with (among others) a male hustler and a hairdresser and he conducts a marriage ceremony for two of his male disciples. Inevitably, he is roundly condemned as a blasphemer by religious authorities and is eventually betrayed by Judas (Steve Callahan), tried and executed.

It’s a thoroughly familiar story — and not just because of the New Testament. Halo-ing an oppressed minority figure or a political dissident as a Christ-like martyr is a well-worn dramatic ploy. In the ’60s and ’70s, African-Americans, civil rights workers, young pacifists, anti-war demonstrators as well as major assassinated figures like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all portrayed in similar fashion. (Godspell is essentially in the same mode.)

“Preaching  to the choir” is the term I’ve been avoiding, but there it is.

Mercifully, McNally keeps things from being an entirely predictable return to high-school dramatics or a consciousness-raising session. For one, there is his sense of humor, which, unfortunately, is not evident enough. The Nativity is farcically handled, but it’s a long stretch until we get to the point when the gentle, adult Joshua is worked up into a rage by a hypocritical, homophobic priest and he slaps him.

His disciples are aghast. But you told us to turn the other cheek, they cry. “Well,” he shouts back, “I must have been in a good mood that day.”

McNally is also the latest in a long line of writers who take Jesus at his word when it comes to loving sinners — and updates things accordingly. The scene in which Joshua faces down a cynical hustler (David Pevsner) is easily the play’s most powerful, moving and unnerving. It also should be noted that the 108 troupe has been performing this play for so long, they’re mighty comfortable doing it. There’s a real sense of ease in the performances.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Corpus Christi is McNally’s choice to set it in (and name it after) his hometown in Texas. His is a lonely, Lone Star redeemer stuck in a town that’s depicted as mostly bereft of enlightenment, cultural or spiritual. Joshua must contend with gay-bashing boys in the high school restroom. He’s goaded into learning football, and other manly displays, even as it’s clear he’s not really into them — like going to the prom with an unlucky girl (the likably funny Molly O’Leary).

McNally has never really written anything for the stage about his Texas upbringing, and I may be off base in speculating that some of this is drawn from his own life. The biographies and autobiographies of gay writers and artists, after all, are filled with similar incidents.

Except for one brief moment, that is. While still a young man in Texas, Joshua remarks on a beautiful melody on a record that’s playing. It’s from the opera, Thais, his teacher says, by Jules Massenet.

And that’s it, that’s the entire scene. It’s something of an inside-opera joke, I suppose. Massenet’s Orientalist work about an Egyptian courtesan being converted to Christianity but really seduced by a monk has some relevance to Corpus Christi in that it also mixes the religious and the erotic. But not one audience member in a thousand would catch it. It’s completely unnecessary.

Except that McNally is a huge opera fan. He’s written librettos (he wrote Dead Man Walking with Jake Heggie and was originally involved with Moby-Dick). And most importantly, he’s spoken about how — growing up in the ’50s on the southern tip of Texas — his life was more or less saved by listening to the Texaco Opera broadcasts on the radio. They opened up a different world of emotional expression and culture, and made him want to go to New York, which he did in 1956 to attend Columbia — and where his life was transformed.

The detail is hardly enough to redeem Corpus Christi. But more of McNally in this earnest little church pageant might have made it far more compelling as a piece of theater.