King of Queens 

Is Corpus Christi the gayest story ever told?

Playwright Terrence McNally owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathers who comprise the most vocal segment of the Christian right. If not for their predictably shrill reaction to all but the most literal interpretations of the Bible, Corpus Christi, McNally's profane answer to the medieval mystery play, would have opened quietly, gotten a handful of stinky reviews, and closed faster than you can say "Jesus wept."

But no sooner had word hit the street that Corpus Christi depicted the messiah and his dirty dozen as a cat-fighting gaggle of disco-dancing queers than (in accordance with the Lord's vengeful temperament) the bomb threats commenced. Suddenly, this troubled little play's opening night morphed into a full-fledged media event. Theatergoers attending the original 1998 production had to walk through metal detectors before entering the auditorium, and that, according to New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley, was the most exciting part of the entire Corpus Christi experience.

Brantley's review was almost generous compared to The Daily News' Finian O'Toole, who wrote, "The cranks and bigots who can condemn Terrence McNally's controversial 'gay Jesus' play without having seen it don't realize how lucky they are. It seems rather unjust that open-minded liberals have to sit through the damn thing before condemning it. ... This play is not worth anyone's anger or anyone's brave defiance. If there is to be free speech, let it be used to debate how political theater can recover from this fiasco."

I'm inclined to second O'Toole's comments with a hearty "amen," but for reasons I can't fully articulate, the word sticks in my throat. Playhouse on the Square's simple, simply earnest production of Corpus Christi (at TheatreWorks) never transcends the confusing, convoluted, and unnecessarily profane script, but after an hour-and-a-half of would-be-blasphemy, it left the audience speechless, unable to clap or move from their seats. Corpus Christi hasn't changed. It isn't a better play than it was in 1998, but in the ensuing years the vitriolic determination of conservative Christians to forgo God's judgment and exclude gays from heaven (not to mention basic civil rights) has made the play more interesting and moving in ways that defy explanation.

McNally's gospel exists simultaneously in the first century A.D., in the 1950s, and thanks to a hackneyed but nevertheless effective device, the present, and recounts the events of Christ's life from nativity to crucifixion. Jesus (called Joshua) is depicted as a troubled child from a less-than-happy home coming to grips with his sexuality and his divinity. Actor David Foster, an outstanding musical performer showing off his dramatic chops, makes Jesus fully human and reluctantly celestial. He wants to heal the sick and make the world a gentler place but is easily annoyed when his followers, seemingly unable to think for themselves, take his words too literally.

Foster's edgy sweetness is expertly countered by Sean Lyttle's Judas, who, boasting a string of trendy restaurants and an elephantine wang, cares less for his pouch of silver than his place in history. From Brian Mott's loving interpretation of John the Baptist to Jeff Godsey's trailer-park take on the Virgin Mary, the large cast is thoroughly committed, convincing, and compelling even in the play's most dreadful moments. Sadly for the actors, there can be no suspense in a tale told so frequently, and verisimilitude aside, McNally's trite depictions of sadistic nuns and angry priests will only make the schooled theatergoer long for a new script by Christopher Durang.

Corpus Christi's best moments occur when it steers away from the Bible and looks at Jesus/Joshua's time at Pontius Pilate High School and the playground politics, where beauty and strength dominate logic and artistry. Anyone, gay or straight, who was better with a book than a ball can relate to the bathroom scene where young Jesus/Joshua discovers that the wages of sin (in this case, being different) are having your head shoved in the toilet and flushed. Although the literal crucifixion resonates with the horrible murder of Matthew Shepherd (which happened concurrent with the play's premiere) the smaller indignity is nearly as powerful.

Critics like Brantley and O'Toole were correct to point out that Corpus Christi is McNally's weakest script to date and that it fails miserably as political theater. They were, however, quite wrong in assuming that it was either political or theater. It's obvious from the play's overt (if never graphic) depiction's of sex and the overabundance of sophomoric profanity that the author wasn't out to convert the Southern Baptist convention. If anything, he wanted to drive them further away. Corpus Christi is a ritual for the gay community: a reminder that in their persecution, their preference for male companionship, and that reverence for strong, troubled women, the patrons at J-Wags have more in common with Christ than modern-day Pharisees like Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson.

Corpus Christi

Through January 29th

TheatreWorks

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