Corpus Christi

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These days Austin may not be very tolerant of loud music or open green space, but it retains its gay-friendly attitude. When Corpus Christi premiered in sophisticated Manhattan, the theater was repeatedly threatened with violence; in reasonable, circumspect Indiana there were protests and litigation.

Terrence McNally

Reviewed by Lindsey Eck

Saturday, August 18 2001, 4:45 PM


These days Austin may not be very tolerant of loud music or open green space, but it retains its gay-friendly attitude. When Corpus Christipremiered in sophisticated Manhattan, the theater was repeatedly threatened with violence; in reasonable, circumspect Indiana there were protests and litigation. But here in the heart of the Bible Belt this production has sparked neither bomb threats, nor pickets, nor lawsuits. As for the conceit of a gay Christ figure, well, decades of Jesus jokes by Texas humorist Kinky Friedman have made blasphemy passe in an area that was never big on Puritanism anyway. And a plethora of gay-themed theater productions have weakened advocates' reflex of praising anything homosexual, regardless of quality. Thus, it seems, Austin is the ideal locale for evaluating Corpus Christi as a piece of theater, rather than as a political event.

Playwright Terrence McNally has the actors keep reminding us that the tale he is telling -- the Gospel story -- has been told many times, and his is just another restatement of the same story. The script, though, seems torn between telling the extant Jesus story using new motifs, and telling a metastory. That is, despite McNally's avowals that Corpus Christi is a play about Jesus, more often it appears to be a play about the Jesus story, an oblique take on the Gospel rather than a remake. It's something like an Apocalypse Now in which Kurtz vacillates between being strongly influenced by Heart of Darkness and ignorance of Conrad's novel (and in which African characters keep popping up in Southeast Asia). This tension is not successfully resolved, though the tendency is toward metastory, especially by the play's conclusion.

At the outset the actors appeal to the audience directly to suspend its disbelief. Doing so is harder than usual with Corpus Christi. For one thing, the piece makes heavy use of belief-disrupting devices such as blatant anachronism, males portraying females without costume change, and asides to the audience. Such devices will not disconcert an audience familiar with Shakespeare (let alone Ionesco or Woody Allen), though McNally makes such heavy use of them it seems he is cunningly, deliberately undermining his appeal for disbelief suspension. More unnerving is the disruption of potentially poignant moments, especially in the first of two acts, with actors screaming "fuck you" in the middle of others' lines, along with an intrusion of vaudeville and camp into the action so often it becomes a motif. But one aspect of McNally's story/metastory vacillation especially undermines audience belief (or is that faith?).

Joshua, son of a virgin, Mary, and her husband Joseph, a carpenter, is born into 1950s Texas. He is more than a Christ figure: He is addressed as Son of God, he performs miracles of healing and raising from the dead, and is literally crucified. Here's the conundrum: If Corpus Christi is a new telling of the Jesus story, then the Texas in which Joshua/Jesus appears should be uninfluenced by the historical Jesus, who has not yet come for the first time. This Texas, unlike the actual Lone Star State, would not be steeped in Christianity (mainly evangelical Protestantism in reality, though the play's Christianity is strictly Roman Catholic). It would be impossible to grow up in a city called Corpus Christi ('body of Christ'), people would not swear using "Jesus Christ," and the abusive priest who doubles as Joshua's cynical Scoutmaster would be a rabbi (or druid or something). We are told at the outset that the Bible, before Joshua/Jesus, consists only of the Old Testament. The play refuses to resolve such contradictions and in fact revels in them, with Roman centurions and Pontius Pilate High School being totally unremarkable in 20th-century Texas. It is possible for the audience to run with this ambiguity, but only by inerpreting the action as farce or a series of cartoon-like skits, featuring a common cast, about the Jesus story.

To achieve originality, McNally was almost forced to stage a metastory, because the Jesus story has already been told via anachronism, role shifting, and skit-comedy motifs. That was called Godspell.

Corpus Christi is at its campiest in sections (mainly in Act I) in which the all-male players take on women's roles: mother Mary, Joshua's favorite teacher, his prom date, and so on. Significantly, the actors play female roles as queens -- stereotypical gay parodies of femininity -- rather than as women. Portraying roles about women (rather than portraying women) may comport with a play about the Jesus story (rather than a play about Jesus), but it also narrows the scope of the Jesus story even as it purports to widen it.

The point when the play most obviously manifests this disconnect is when Joshua raises dead Lazarus. While the women -- or rather queens -- are wailing, Joshua screams at them, "Shut up, women!" Here, Joshua departs rudely from the Jesus of the Gospels, who was notably kind and respectful toward women in a male-dominant society that treated them as little better than chattel. McNally blows a chance to build on Jesus' message of love and liberation for women (among the less fortunate of His time whom He sought to elevate) and instead, the play's idea that 'the Son of God came to save the queers' begins to deviate from being a logical extension of 'the Son of God came to save all humankind' in the direction of saving queers being the sine qua non.

The campy portrayal of women might work to the extent that Corpus Christi is strictly a metastory, a take on the Jesus story. Were the play only a farce milking the awkwardness of obvious males subverting gender roles by acting stereotypically female, the humor would be framed within a longstanding gay tradition. But it aims at being more than a farce, at using farcical humor to interpret the existing Christian message on its own terms. In its reduction of all its female roles to camp, the piece risks shrinking the scope of universal liberation via the sacrifice of Christ.

As an analogy, a play making fun of inept attempts by rednecks to portray African-Americans through a stereotypical minstrel show could work as farce, but would be obnoxious if, in its larger purpose, we were simultaneously asked to accept the minstrels as oppressed blacks being set free by a noble liberator. Similarly, Corpus Christi's reduction of all female roles to queen roles may undercut McNally's implied purpose of interpreting the existing Jesus message that the scorned shall be exalted as extensible to gay males. Rather, the play verges on substituting the redemption of gay males for the redemption of suffering humanity in general, and in so doing succeeds mainly as metastory, less so as story.

Corpus Christi does give attention to the communistic economic theory of the biblical Jesus; Joshua teaches his 12 apostles to share all their goods with each other and the poor (only Judas refuses to share his possessions). But the play substitutes, for the critical episode in which Jesus offends the Pharisees by expelling commercialism from the Temple, a scene in which Joshua offends the priests by conducting a male-male wedding. Joshua's crucifixion as 'King of the Queers' rather than King of the Jews (or the Texans) may be necessary to McNally's metastory, but it deviates crucially from the Gospel story: The proximate cause of Jesus' execution may have been his view that religion must not be perverted by commerce. McNally's Christ figure is executed because he is viewed as perverted by sex.

The denouement in the second act, in which Joshua has his Last Supper (one hilarious sight gag occurs when the cast freezes in Da Vinci pose), prays at Gethsemane, is scourged, and is crucified is appropriately shocking. Under Rick Fontȧs apt direction the Passion is played out with horrifying efficiency as the mood devastatingly breaks from festive to funereal.

Here, the play's heavy reliance on vaudevillian farce finally pays off dramatically in its contrast with the pathos of Joshua's torture and death. One brief detraction from the somber mood occurs during the scourging of Joshua, which is undermined dramatically by a simultaneous scene with a nun rapping a student's knuckles. This gratuitous swipe at Catholicism is by now a hackneyed motif and interrupts an otherwise powerful build to the catharsis at the crucifixion.

McNally offers no resurrection at the end, which is odd, since his script allowed for many other miracles. In its omission of any resurrection, like its failure to connect gay dignity to women's dignity and its omission of the driving of moneylenders from the Temple, McNally's story about the Jesus story diverges from the biblical Jesus story. Again McNally risks subverting his ostensible aim at universality in exchange for an affirmation of group identity.

Chicago-based Real Rain Productions staged a fine performance that earned a standing O at the end. It must be said, though, that this play doesn't demand a lot of range from its cast. Much of the action is recounted or even read rather than enacted, and the actors generally are required merely to switch between two moods: serious and campy. (Of course, vaudevillian camp demands exuberant confidence and a fine sense of timing, and neither is lacking from these players.)

Doug LeBelle, as Joshua, was creditable in the first act as a confused young man unsure of his sexuality. By Act II he assumed command of the stage and gave a taut performance, but seemed a little pat. He transcended the role, though, in two memorable and emotional moments of prayer: when Joshua teaches his apostles the Lord's Prayer, and at Gethsemane. Here again, poignancy, while sparsely scattered amid the farce, was all the more precious for its rarity.

The local alt-weekly engaged in its trademark crony journalism by assigning an old friend of Michael Miller to gush about his acting ability, so I was naturally skeptical. But in fact, as Judas, he lived up to his billing and delivered a commanding performance manifesting a versatility of range. The other standout among the accomplished troupe was Christopher Loveless as Matthew, an actor with obvious potential who should be cast in larger roles.

Real Rain Productions should be commended for bringing an engrossing production of provocative material to a receptive locale. In the end, Corpus Christi is a success, not just a succes de scandale.

Corpus Christi is currently Being Performed at The Hideout, Austin, TX, 10 Aug. 1 to Sept. 01 

Copyright © 2001 by Lindsey Eck. All rights reserved.
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