DOASKDOTELL DRAMA, MUSICAL OR PLAY REVIEW of Corpus Christi (and The Rocky Picture Horror Show), Beautiful Thing, Kiss of the Spider Woman

 

Author:  Terrence McNally

Title:  Corpus Christi

Where seen: Gray Space Theater, Cedar Riverside Peoples’ Center, Minneapolis, MN (2002)  (play is 1998 version)

Director: Bryan Cole and Timothy Lee

Performance time: 95 Min

Cast: Stephen Frethem (Joshua), Dan Averitt (John), Patrick Bailey (Andrew), Topher Brattain (Thomas), David Dubin (James), Jim Geckler (Matthew), Joe Leary (Peter), Steve Lewsi (Janes the Less), Joshua Paul Olson *Ohilip), Jim Pounds (Bartholomew), Brent Teclaw (Thaddeus), John Trones (Judas), Mitchell J. Thompson (Simon)

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Review

Corpus Christi” means, literally, “blood of Christ, and is the  name of a well-known medium sized city on the Texas Gulf Coast. The play provides a time-warp duality. It translates the story of the life of Jesus—the winter topic in all of those blue books from the Judson Press back in the 1950s—into contemporary settings, a young gay man gathering a following akin to that of the disciples.  The story literally jumps back and forth between late 90s Texas and the age of Christ as if the time slots were interchangeable, as they would be in a dream or as in Clive Barker’s novel “Imajica.”

Of course, in my days at the Ninth Street Center we would often mention in the talk groups that Jesus himself had been a fisher of men, and Paul Rosenfels himself would teach that it was this openness to a homosexual component, to real intimacy, that was necessary for psychological growth.  That idea is presented here. This is one of the most intimate stage plays that I have ever witnessed. The interactions between the men and the Jesus-like character (Josh, as underplayed gently by a wiry Stephen Frethem) truly become erotic at times in their tenderness as they, at perhaps three points, remind one of the intimate-style break dancing and touching and body-teasing common in gay discos today. All of the characters are earthy and spontaneous, without the polish and bodily artifices that we come to expect from more conventional “gay entertainment.” The homosexuality seems adolescent, juvenile, and even narcissistic, yet it is also joyful, spontaneous, tender and natural, serving the needs of the characters as persons rather than as cogs in some larger societal machine.

Various possible events today, varying from boys learning to play football to dealing with HIV, may to events that would occur during Jesus’s ministry. At one point, Josh yearns to be “normal” rather than be the son of God, with a delivery that reminds one of a scene in Smallville where Clark Kent tells his adoptive parents that he wants to fit in, until he realizes that he is really better off with his powers. Eventually, his dangerous differences and challenges to authority catch up with him, leading to a powerful crucifixion scene with a moment of total nudity. The lead actor is physically beaten on the back by a fake strap, enough though to plainly redden the skin, and one ponders what it is like for a stage actor to undergo this kind of physical contact in repeated performances.

Frethem carries off the Christ part with kind of Shakespearean elegance and sonnet-like iambic rhythm, staying at just the right level of intensity and sincerity, never approaching melodrama. This is a kind of acting as salesmanship, and starts out in the very first scene as he is introduced and baptized as just another human being, soon to rise and overcome temptations. The other disciples vary in their distinction as personalities, some (such as Philip) much more memorable than others. But never is any of the dialogue mechanical, it is always played with sincerity.

The play has in some cities attracted enormous controversy and threats. I recall a bit of controversy (about hypothetical heterosexual contact between Jesus and Mary Magdalene)after the 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorcese, in which the Christ figure is played by a laconic and rather distant Willem Dafoe (Dafoe seems like the same character to me wherever, even in Auto Focus). After the play we had a panel and audience discussion that would have fit well on ABCNighline.” The point was made that our democracy and respect for law is supposed to give us the freedom to explore religious interpretations that would be unacceptable to persons who derive their sense of identity from the certainty of religious tenets. The discussion then progressed to 9-11, and to the puzzlement that the “devotion” of the hijackers to the absolute character of their beliefs could explain the extreme nihilism of their actions.

I don’t know if McNally has made progress with a film version of Corpus and film financing is a long process, but it is a no-brainer that a well-done film treatment of this play (with the gay and homosocial interpretation of Jesus and the disciples mapped to the present day world) would draw a big audience in the art houses (like Landmark), as well as a lot of pickets. This kind of material has Lions Gate or Miramax written all over it.

One reader (apparently female) in Arkansas angrily commented (July 2004)  I hate the idea of the Corpus Christi film and play. That's horrible, to say that Jesus was homosexual! It says in the Bible that is BASED ON HIS LIFE that homosexuality is wrong and sinful, and it also says that Jesus was a sinless man! So that's ridiculous! It's perversion of the Holy Word!!!!!”  Indeed, as if I were part of the guilty parties by reviewing the play and encouraging its performance and perhaps being filmed commercially. After The Passion of the Christ, imagine the protest demonstrations against this film if it were made! Bring it on!

It’s noteworthy that religious groups have protested the idea of a commercial movie based on this play even before there are any concrete plans to make it. The visitor can check here, for example: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ban-any-film-version-of-the-play-corpus-christi.html   The question remains, why should a religious group ban what I choose to see just because they feel “offended” by the interpretation offered. (Why will radical Muslims kill for “blasphemy”? Because religion is all they have to live for.)

I mention that I had seen a stage rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few weeks before at the Hey Theater in Minneapolis, and I am struck by the psychological contrast between a play like Corpus with great intimacy and intensity, and the more “usual” camp (“gay monsters”) where no one (except maybe one character) survives being forced into drag and all of its inherited interfaces. The film (20th Century Fox, 1975, 100 min, R) with Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry, became a midnight cult classic after an initial flop, and it offers similar opportunities for comical strip mining. There is, toward the end, a bizarre use of the old RKO Radio Pictures transmission tower trademark as a backdrop.

Beautiful Thing, by Jonathan Harvey, is a little play, taking place in 1993 in a London flat and surrounding neighborhood, about two teenage boys (Jamie and Steve) becoming friends and dealing gradually with their likely homosexuality, at the disapproval (or at least questioning) of Jamie’s mother. They get closer, with some backrubs and such, and finally dancing in a pub, but nothing “happens.” It was presented by the Trumpet Vine Theater Company in Arlington VA (directed by Andrew Zox) on January 17 2006 in a stage reading. The play evokes the early scenes of the film “A Home at the Edge of the World.”

There is also a film directed by Hettie MacDonald from Sony Pictures Classics (1996). It stars Glen Berry and Scott Neal as the two teenagers in South London, who gradually grow closer despite the emotional reactions of Jamie’s mother (Linda Henry) and other neighbors. Jamie does have to come to terms – calling himself a “bender” at one point. There is one point, when Jamie is reading gay magazines, when he asks if you can get HIV from frottage.  

I saw another little play with a controversial religious theme, If Angels Were Mortal, by Candyce A. Petersen, at the Family Life Christmas Program at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC on Dec. 22, 2003. Here, the idea that a family man “Michael” has a job as an “angel” (in LDS terminology this would be as the head of the Michaelzidik order), assigning Gabriel to visit the virgin Mary and give her the message about her upcoming virgin birth of the Baby Jesus. In the script, and angel really gets fired for not calling back in. Well, what is the relationship between having a family and immortality?  The Mormons think it is eternal marriage, and essentially anyone can become an angel if they follow the law. Others think angels are special in such a way that they do not have their own families. A sequel for Christmas 2005 at the same church was Look Around the Stable, by Erin Lyttle and Mary Jane Sennett.  Middle school and high school drama students read the parts of various objects and characters in the Nativity. The most startling was that of Joseph, who said and wrote nothing in the Gospels himself, but who obeyed God even to the point of marrying the woman that God told him to when God told him to. That’s some pretty heavy aesthetic realism.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, dir. Eric Schaeffer, music: John Kander; Lyrics: Fred Ebb; book by Terrence McNally; novel by Manuel Puig) performed at the Arlington Signature Theater in 2008. A lilting musical about a gay man imprisoned as a “sex offender” after a real world sting in Argentina, who befriends a Communist activist as a cell mate. Blogger discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

Related reviews: In the Heart of America    film: A Home at the Edge of the World

 

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