The Hysterical Jesus

Gay activists are ready for a fight over a Santa Ana production of Terrence McNallys worst play ever

All he wanted was to direct a play. A play that brought tears to his eyes. A play that struck at his soul and stuck in his heart. A play never produced in California. A play called Corpus Christi that was written by Terrence McNally, one of the highest high-profile playwrights in the country today.

A play about a young man who hears the voice of God and preaches a gospel of love. A play about a young man who hears the voice of God and preaches a gospel of love and who attracts 12 other young men who revere him as a Messiah.

A play about a gay Christ figure named Joshua.

A play about a gay Christ figure named Joshua who falls in love with one of his disciples—the one named Judas.

A play about a gay Christ figure named Joshua crucified as King of the Queers.

A play that pisses people off. The mother of his co-producer is verbally assaulted at a spiritual retreat—by a fellow Christian. His printer refuses to work on the program. Officers from the Santa Ana Police Department tell him they're concerned about protests and picketers, and they brief him on proper procedure if he gets either. All of this before The Orange County Register runs a big preview detailing some of the potential controversy a rather unprecedented two weeks before the play opens.

He gets worried. Last year in New York, bomb threats forced one of that city's premier theaters to cancel the play. Only vociferous counterprotests by artists forced them to reconsider the decision. The play opened—to protesters and picketers.

He gets really worried when he hears that just last week, British Muslims upset about the play's opening in England issued a fatwaon McNally, condemning him to death if he travels to a Muslim country.

He contemplates hiring an armed security guard and installing metal detectors, not an easy decision when your theater barely scratches up the rent every month. He asks friends and colleagues in the theater community to volunteer as security guards. He tells anyone within earshot that it's bullshit to have to deal with security measures when he's trying to stage a play.

Poor Dave Barton, artistic director of Rude Guerrilla Theater. All he wanted was to direct a play.

It's tempting to paint Barton and his theater as the latest victims in the ongoing battle over the First Amendment—NEWS FLASH! SCRAPPY ORANGE COUNTY THEATER THREATENED BY PROTEST FROM RELIGIOUS RIGHT OVER CONTROVERSIAL GAY PASSION PLAY! OPPRESSED BAND OF ARTISTS FORCED TO SHELL OUT HARD-EARNED DUCATS FOR METAL DETECTOR! FINALLY! A JUICY THEATER STORY IN ORANGE COUNTY!—but before we call the ACLU and stage a candlelight vigil, a few facts:

•First, nothing has happened. Yet. At least nothing that would seem to indicate this is a real story. Yet. Sure, tickets are selling faster than any show in Rude Guerrilla's two-year history, and if the cops are concerned, well, who has a better read on the pulse of the community than the cops, right?

In reality, no one knows if three, 30, 300 or no protesters will show up on Friday for opening night. No one knows if those who do show up will be well-behaved Christians exercising their constitutional right to free assembly, or fire-and-brimstone religious fundies with foam-flecked lips and blood-engorged eyes.

•Second, Barton and his theater knew exactly what they were in for. As much as someone might identify with and believe in the politics and morality of this play, you'd have to be a complete ignoramus not to realize its implications—the words "gay" and "Christ" ring as discordantly in the ears of most devout Christians as do the words "compassionate" and "conservative" in others. The play made so many headlines last year and carries with it such a reputation that you could produce it on the South Pole and devoutly religious traditionalist penguins would line up in protest.

And you must consider the medium. Barton is a contributor to a notoriously left-wing, subversive weekly newspaper in Orange County (this one), and runs Rude Guerrilla with two colleagues. He has a personal and artistic history that suggests a fond taste for provocation. While I don't doubt his sincerity or his motives in choosing to produce this play—he is queer, he is Christian and he believes strongly that this is a play young men and women struggling with their sexuality and faith desperately need to see—it's also quite clear that the external trappings of Corpus Christi (the controversy, the alternative, outsider take on the most sacred Christian tale) are right in sync with the artistic mission of Rude Guerrilla, which has quickly and ambitiously positioned itself as the most politically inclined, cutting-edge theater in Orange County.

In short, this is a theater that loves to tweak noses. And this play is a certifiable nose-tweaker. But when the snout you're pinching, plucking or twisting is of the thin-skinned religious-right variety, you had best be prepared for all hell to break loose. If you don't anticipate it, you probably have no business running a theater in the first place. And one thing Barton and company have proved in two years is that they're very good at getting publicity. Hence the fact that the press releases and fliers advertising this play have included the words "controversial," "pickets," "bombs" and "death threats."

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