Every life-of-Christ play preaches to the choir. Whether conventional, pious and sentimental (for Christians and their fellow travelers) or satiric and debunking (for a variety of folk, from freethinkers to shit-disturbers), passion plays are performed for one specific audience and against another. Lord Andrew's Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance, doesn't just present a savior for rock & rollers, it also vexes the Lawrence Welk contingent. Et, as they say, cetera.
Terrence McNally's somewhat forced, late-20th-century-relevant Jesus play, Corpus Christi, however, is somewhat AC/DC. It is, on the one hand, a shit-disturber -- to the extent that any play these days can upset any but theatergoers, who are hardly a powerful constituency. It's said that the Stage Company received death threats for producing a show that presents a gay Jesus, some openly gay apostles and at least one other who is too cute not to be gay. But those who, eagerly or reluctantly, get beyond this conceit, are presented with a Jesus as sentimental as the most pious congregation could wish. "Jesus Was a Teenager, Too" did well on the Top 20 radio shows of the '50s, despite no one's knowing anything about the adolescence of Jesus. So save for the little matter of Pope John Paul II's having joined most of the Religious Right in declaring homosexuality an "objective evil," why shouldn't a '90s Jesus be gay -- and, for that matter, temporarily a teenager, too, in the Gospel According to McNally? Here's why: because debunked stage Jesuses are all oafs and nondebunked stage Christs are all simpy, and neither oafishness nor simpiness appeals to anyone who thinks, believer or not.
McNally's play isn't stupid, however. Like almost all of his other plays, Corpus Christi has pointed dialogue and a well-wrought structure. In the case of the Stage Company's production (which opened last Thursday at the St. Marcus Theatre and will play again Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 16-18), it also has an excellent cast; clear, competent direction; and careful if minimalist production values.
The play begins with the summoning of the 13 men of the cast to the stage, where burly Mark Edwards Schwentker, as John the Baptist, christens them with the various apostles' names. Each then steps forward to say some words about his character's background. Thomas (David S. Brink), for instance, is an actor; Matthew (F. Reed Brown) an attorney; Bartholomew (Kevin Tong McCameron) a physician. But Matthew was a hated publican -- a tax collector for the Romans -- so why a lawyer instead of something more odious (if that isn't a disingenuous question)? And though the opening baptism ceremony is admirably theatrical, does that preclude McNally's using the one figure in the New Testament, John the Beloved (a.k.a. the Evangelist, a.k.a. the Apostle), who, even scripturally, gives off some authentic homoerotic vibes?
Jesus himself (although called Joshua throughout the play) has only a sexual past as a professional gay victim -- sexually abused by his mother (her "little man" dancing partner), cruelly mocked by an athletic priest, tormented by macho high-school classmates. When he is forced to take up his savior role, all this persecution is submerged by the devotion of his apostles, even Judas (Gary Cox), whose history is having been the guy who brought Jesus out. Ted Cancila gives the part everything he's got, which is considerable, but he can't get past McNally's Jesus' being any more than an awfully sweet guy in great touch with God and very understanding of other people. No other actor could do much better, either.
One of Thomas Aquinas' hymns says that we can only know Christ through hearing about him, but many a pietà, many a crucifixion and some incredible music (which is listening of a different sort) presents Jesus in the power and truth of art, not dogma. The Stage Company's Corpus Christi is often touching and well may speak a truth to members of its audience that other representations of Jesus could not. And why, again, shouldn't Jesus be seen as a gay man? Christ himself told his followers to look for him in other people, particularly the poor, the despised and the sinners. For the right audience, which extends well beyond the gay community, Corpus Christi is a fine holiday show that gives tangible representation to love and tolerance that goes a lot further toward putting Christ back into Christmas than a dozen Nutcrackers or Christmas Carols.