Corpus Christi

Courtesy Grey Space Performance Company

It is so rare that we get a really good controversy in the world of theater that we can at least thank playwright Terrence McNally for inciting protests with the 1998 production of Corpus Christi. Picketers stood outside the Manhattan Theatre Club with placards reading Terrence McNally sodomizes Jesus--and your mother is next! Sounds like a show for the old Times Square. McNally's script is a rather by-the-book retelling of the New Testament, but with a few wrinkles that were bound to invite some ire. Jesus and the disciples, in this retelling, are gay, and Jesus (redubbed "Joshua") officiates at a gay wedding and lays hands on a hustler, clearing him of HIV. But the protesters had it wrong. This is a play worth protesting, not because it is immoral, but because it is something worse: Corpus Christi is bad art. In this Gray Space Performance Company production, directed by Timothy Lee and Bryan Cole, the actors appear in khakis and white T-shirts, as they did in the Manhattan Theatre Club production. (A passion play by way of the Gap?) The first half of McNally's script is set in Corpus Christi, Texas--his own birthplace--where Jesus (played here by a fretting Stephen Frethem) must endure an awkward teenage romance with Judas (a bullying and cocky John Trones). McNally's script is ahistoric: It is a Corpus Christi that includes such residue of ancient Israel as Roman centurions. There's nothing wrong with this, per se--medieval miracle plays did the same--but, under the direction of Lee and Cole, we get no sense that we are in Texas or Israel, much less both. It does not seem too much to ask that Texans drawl like Texans, or that centurions represent themselves with mannerisms that suggest those of ancient Rome. Indeed, the script offers so little by way of character, and the directors have added so little to this, that a number of this production's cast members have fallen back on the tics and gestures they developed in previous plays. But then, it might be too much to ask that actors develop characters in this play. They have their hands full enough simply trying to follow McNally's text, which alternates wildly between maudlin religious sentimentality and bizarre satire, culminating in a scene that offers both. Romans strip one actor naked onstage and graphically flog him, while another actor plays a caricature of a nun, complete with fluttering eyes and outstretched ruler, which she uses to punish an errant student. The point McNally is making is obscure--that corporal punishment meted out by the Catholic Church is somehow the equivalent of Roman torture?--but at least there is something novel offered. After seeing khakis for so long, it is a relief to see another costuming choice, even if it is bare, bloody skin.

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