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."

•Third, this play doesn't deserve any of the hubbub. It doesn't deserve it because it isn't an offensive play on religious grounds. It's an allegory, using Christian iconography to tell a coming-out story of a young gay man who is beaten and killed for his sexuality. Sure, there are four-letter words and some rather racy situations—the Christ-like figure heals a hustler with AIDS; Judas talks about his big dick. But any honest student of the Bible would surely be more offended by forking out 30 pieces of cash to watch camels and horses stumble across a stage during a certain soulless Christmas spectacular at a certain glittering cathedral in Garden Grove than spending $12 to hear gay men talk about how God loves us best when we love one another.

But—and here's the real rub—this play doesn't deserve the commotion because it isn't a very good play.

One could argue—and hey, many reviews in other cities have—that Corpus Christi is a really bad play. And that may be the most important, sobering and angering fact of this whole affair. Whether the controversy over this play breaks with all the intensity of an April shower or with a deluge of condemnation, the simple fact is that people are getting worked up over a bunch of words that don't really warrant the outrage because they don't add up to much of a play.

Playwright McNally admits as much in his preface to the published version when he explains—you might say apologizes—that this story is told in the "theatrical tradition of medieval morality plays . . . no suspense." He calls it "more a religious ritual than a play," the difference being that "a play teaches us new insight into the human condition. A ritual is an action we perform over and over because we have to."

Ritual, play, blasphemous diatribe, heartfelt exploration of the sacredness of sexuality:none of it matters if the thing isn't worth seeing. And, if you believe the great majority of the reviews, it isn't. Some people have called the reviews mixed. Yeah, like the martini is a mixed drink: five parts gin to one part vermouth.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby: "The entire production has the teeth-grinding earnestness of an amateur theatrical put on by a neighborhood encounter group. . . . The Passion of Jesus has all of the mystery of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs put on by a bunch of fellows who appear to shop at the Gap. . . . It is difficult to know what Mr. McNally has in mind. To celebrate the compatibility of Christian beliefs and gay life? To point out the hypocrisy of much Christian practice in relation to gay believers? To state the obvious?" New York Daily News: "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." Times of London: "The true scandal lies not in McNally's attempt to present Jesus Christ as gay, but in the banality of the script." New York Times critic Ben Brantley: "The excitement stops right after the metal detectors." Dallas Morning News: "After all the fuss, Corpus Christi turns out to be Godspell for gay folks. . . . Seeing the actual show makes you wonder whether the company hadn't been using the initial protests [against the play] as an excuse to dump an embarrassingly thin script." Variety: "Facile and hectoring . . . McNally is checking off all the proper points to be scored against the enemies of gay people who use the Bible as a weapon. Again, one sympathizes with the intent, but the execution is unhappily artless." Washington Post: "It would be impossible to take the play as seriously as it takes itself."

Time hasn't tempered the wrath of reviewers. Productions last month in Houston and Denver were ripped by local papers as lacking "stylistic consistency and dramatic conviction" and for being "more superficial and far-fetched than probing or iconoclastic. One gets the feeling that McNally is guilty of the very offense he seems to condemn: bending the scriptures to fit a narrow set of beliefs instead of making the requisite leap of faith to accommodate a more inclusive vision."

So who liked it? Time magazine, which writes about theater about as often as Sports Illustrated covers greyhound racing, called it one of the best plays of the year and noted cultural expert Dick Schaap called it "moving" on ABC's World News.

The most thoughtful praise came from the Village Voice's Michael Feingold: "However unsatisfactory as a work of art or an interpretation of Jesus, Corpus Christi is a brave act. McNally's willingness to expose himself and his artistic home to danger, for the right to declare that no such danger should exist, does him honor. That he has evoked hysteria instead of serious discussion from his opponents is the proof that he was right."

The play took on more resonance shortly after it opened in October 1998, when Matthew Shepard's crucified body was discovered lashed to a wooden fence in rural Wyoming. The parallel of persecution and intolerance of homosexuals, along with the brutal violence inflicted on gay men, was too obvious to ignore.

But even with such an eerie topical connection, Corpus Christi didn't catch fire after its New York run. No major theater has touched it. You could argue that bigger houses are afraid of the controversy. But a reading of the play suggests the reviewers on the nay side were right. In this case, it may not be cowardice influencing major theaters. Refusing to produce Corpus Christi may represent a rare victory for good taste.

The play, such as it is, operates on dual tracks. It's a coming-of-age and coming-out tale of a young gay man in a tightly wound Texas town in the '50s, as well as a religious allegory. The play begins with actors walking onstage in street clothes. They are introduced by their real names and are ritualistically baptized by an actor playing John. (Every actor in the show but those playing Joshua and Judas plays multiple roles). They deliver brief summaries of their characters, and then the actual story begins.

Joshua is born in a cheap motel on a football weekend. The three wise men, room-service waiters (room service at a cheap motel?), offer lame gifts. He grows up hearing the voice of God speaking to him, along with the constant background sound of hammering. He goes to high school, gets picked on by a macho priest and football coach, gets picked on by homophobic bullies, and is revealed as a sensitive boy who thinks his mother didn't like him and whose father was never around. He falls for a boy named Judas; is outed at the high school prom; hitchhikes through the Texas desert; heals a trucker's leprosy; meets James Dean, who tries to tempt him into renouncing God; gathers his disciples, who include fishermen, lawyers, teachers and a hairdresser; sanctifies a gay marriage between two of his disciples; preaches tolerance and compassion for all; heals an AIDS-riddled hustler with a hug; is persecuted; and then is brutally crucified.

Much like the source tale, McNally's play does build to a rather spellbinding climax, a crucifixion that, on paper at any rate, is as brutal and graphic as the real thing must have been. Unfortunately, up to that point, the play feels rushed and hurried—and often unintentionally silly. It's an ungainly mishmash of biblical legend and contemporary gay sloganeering. McNally's intent is pure:Jesus preached love and tolerance for everyone, and he loved gay men as much as he loved anyone else. And he draws an interesting—if rather obvious—parallel between early Christians, persecuted and fearful of announcing themselves, and gay youths.

But the way he tries to get us there, with bad jokes and the occasional tawdry reference or episode, seems terribly contrived, painfully obvious and preachy without much conviction.

In short, it may be a bit irreverent, it may be a bit vulgar from time to time, but it's not a vile, depraved or sleazy play. Nor is it a particularly deep or even profound piece of theater. It's a passion play that doesn't read passionately. Like so many of the other battles waged over freedom of expression recently, the controversy over Corpus Christi seems to be a lot of sound and fury over relatively nothing.

That's not to imply the ideas in this play are not worth getting worked-up over. Do homosexuals have a place in the Christian faith? Should Christians embrace homosexuals as part of God's family? Barton says yes. And that is the real reason he's producing this play, he says, not to infuriate moralistic Christians.

Those who should see the play, he believes, are people like the Reverend Lou Sheldon (to whom Barton wrote a love letter in the Weekly's Aug. 13 edition) and other card-carrying members of the Traditional Values Coalition, or any person who calls himself or herself a Christian who has ever spewed gay-hating rhetoric.

"God loves us best when we love one another," said Barton, who was raised Christian and is gay. "That's the message in this play. That's not a gay-pride statement; that's a very general statement. . . . When we love one another and embrace our diversity, we become better people. By excluding gays and lesbians from the religious life of a church, that church cuts itself off from opening its horizon. It narrows its world rather than opens it up."

His desire to nudge Christians into a deeper understanding of their faith and a more tolerant attitude are secondary to Barton's hope that troubled gay youths struggling with their faith might see this play and realize there is a place for them in Christianity.

"When you spend your whole life growing up in a church that tells you you're shit . . . it's important to hear that you do have value, that you're important, that you're loved, and that God loves you," Barton said. "It's important to hear that. I know from personal experience."

Like Barton, Jay Fraley (who plays Joshua) relates to McNally's message in the play. After hearing for years that a true Christian must love the sinner but hate the sin, Fraley appreciates a more inclusive take.

"I have a clear understanding of what McNally is saying and of what he struggled with," Fraley said. "God loves gay men because of what they are, not despite who they are. God embraces the gay lifestyle as much as any other lifestyle."

The real test here won't be whether gay audiences agree (of course they will), or whether traditional Christians have a change of heart (of course they won't), but whether straight and non-Christian people are affected.

In fact, there's an interesting case study going on at the moment with two cast members: Sean Cox (Judas) and Matt Tully (Bartholomew), both of whom classify themselves as straight and non-Christian.

"I don't consider myself a Christian, but through this play, my understanding of the teachings of Christ have grown," Cox said. "This is the story of Jesus, which in turn is the story of all of us. I believe it transcends 'straight' and 'gay.' I think you could easily substitute 'black' or 'Mexican' or 'poor' for 'gay' in this show, and the message would be the same. And I think the message of the play is that Jesus belongs to all people because he was all people."

Tully, meanwhile, looks forward to being persecuted and reviled.

"I've never really had an understanding of the gay lifestyle before," he said. "The gay people I've been around have been closeted or not really out in the open. So this whole process has opened my eyes and been an interesting journey. I don't know what it's like to be persecuted for anything. I'm a white heterosexual male, so for me, it's going to be really interesting if I walk up to the theater and protesters start calling me a cocksucking faggot. I'll know what it's like to be hated for something."

Understanding. Tolerance. Compassion. The words are used so often and so easily but so rarely put into practice. And that's the irony at the center of any debate about Corpus Christi: whether you agree with its politics, its message or its images, it's hard to argue that this play is an earnest, if sorely flawed, effort to bring people together. But as has happened for nearly 2,000 years—through crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings and gay-bashings—the Christian message seems once again to keep people apart rather than bring them together.

But one can still hope that a play can bridge—however briefly—that huge gap between word and deed. If a production of this play can do that on the smallest of scales, all the controversy and all the outrage—and maybe even the inferior quality of the work itself—will have been worth it.

Corpus Christi by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (open discussion follows Sun. performances only). Through Dec. 19. $10-$12.

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