IN LATIN, CORPUS CHRISTI means the body of Christ and invokes the solemn sacrament of bread and wine. But in the play called Corpus Christi, which opened at the Rattlestick Theater on Oct. 14, the corpus christi is something quite different: Jesus is chiseled, tanned and ready for his closeup in Details. Oh, and hes gay. Corpus Christi, by Terrence McNally (The Full Monty musical, Love,Valour Compassion), is a twist on the traditional passion plays about the trials, suffering and death of the savior. Jesus, known here as Joshua. Joshua is a gay man from Corpus Christi,Texas, who marries same-sex couples, heals AIDS and is betrayed by his lover, Judas.
The point of the play is gay men and women were driven away from the table in any discussion of spirituality, and I realized that we have as much right [to spirituality] as anyone else, McNally says. But a homosexual Jesus, gay marriage and a priest who gets slapped in the face by the son of God? It should come as no surprise that 10 years ago when the Manhattan Theater Club hosted the world premiere of Corpus Christi, some Catholic leaders went completely batshit.
Let me remind you what America looked like in 1998:There was no Will and Grace, there was no L Word.Gays could not marry in Massachusetts and California as they can now; in fact, only two years earlier, President Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, which refused to define the relationship of same-sex partners as marriage.
Predictably, prominent Catholics and political commentator Pat Buchanan, took to the cable news networks roaring fire-andbrimstone condemnations; postcard mailins flooded in opposing the play. There were even threats of violence against the theater.
The chafing worked:The Manhattan Theater Club buckled under pressure and canceled the show (directed by Joe Mantello of Wicked). But the theater community came to Corpus side, with Tony Kushner (Angels in America) defending the play, alongside First Amendment and civil liberties groups.The Theater Club relented, reinstating the play, but the show went on in an atmosphere akin to a diplomatic visit to the United Nations rather than a downtown opening-night performance. Guard dogs, metal detectors, X-ray machines and police welcomed ticket holders, and angry protesters swarmed the theater like a nest of hornets poked with the First Amendment stick.
But the condemnation didnt just come from religious leaders: as a work of art, quite a few theater critics panned Corpus. Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, The excitement stops right after the metal detectors; Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic,Corpus Christi is showbiz at its most pretentious and its most self-important.
McNally blames irresponsible journalism for the uproar: while some reviewers saw the play, others disparaged it without having seen the show. Im not shy of controversy, but let controversy come after people see the play, McNally says. The play was notorious while it was still in rehearsal.
But in this midst of all this, the unexpected happened.Twenty-four hours before Corpus opening night, in a little town called Laramie,Wyoming, a 21-year-old gay man named Matthew Shepard died. Shepard had held on for five days after a vicious hate-crime beating, in which he was tied to a fence and left for dead.To say it was a sobering event is an understatement. In fact, when asked about their first memories of Corpus Christi, both the producer/director, Nic Arnzen, and James Brandon, who stars as Joshua/Jesus, say they most strongly recall how homophobia surrounding the play magnified Matthew Shepards murderand vice versa.
But that was 1998. In 10 years, there have been some flickers of progress: In fact, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage as recently as last week. So why stage this play again, if critics ripped it up the first time around? Why relight this political and religious firecracker? A better question might be:Why not? This show isnt meant to change your mind or say This was what Jesus was, but to say, What if this was the case? says Arnzen, whose deep love for Corpus and its message is palpable. [The play is] like that awkward girl in high school who has such a good heart, and if you sit down and listen to her, you see how beautiful she isbut man, shes the first person to be picked on. The director blames the poor reviews and ensuing controversy in 1998 on preconceived notions and says he didnt hand out too many comp tickets for the show, lest a controversy rise again. He adds wistfully, I just dont want it to be hurt. Well just have to see if the play proves as polarizing as it once wasbut so far, so good; no complaints, no protests, nothing.
Sheilagh Brooks and James Brandon in Corpus Christi.