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Theater Review:

"CORPUS CHRISTI," Ulysses Theatre Company and Bailiwick Repertory at Bailiwick Arts Center


Before it was scheduled to open at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998, "Corpus Christi" -- Terrence McNally’s gay re-telling of the New Testament -- drew violent protests from religious groups offended by the play’s homosexual reimagining of a Christ-like figure. Even now, a student staging of the play in Fort Wayne, Indiana is embroiled in controversy.

Ulysses Theatre Company and Bailiwick Repertory’s co-production of "Corpus Christi" – the centerpiece of Bailiwick’s Pride 2001 Series -- however, has been met with little, if any, antagonism. And we can take that as a sign of Chicagoans’ sophisticated acceptance of or overall indifference toward the play’s content. Whatever the reasons, it’s inspiring to know that audiences and actors do not have to push their way through blockades of rosary-clutching protestors to get into the doors of Bailiwick Arts Center.

But, as is often the case with such heated and unfounded displays of intolerance, the misguided protests attached to McNally’s "Corpus Christi" have impeded most attempts to seriously critique the play itself. In the process, "Corpus Christi" has been held up as a model of Religious Right lunacy instead of being evaluated as a viable dramatic work of art.

If there are to be any truly sound disputes with this play, they should be directed at McNally’s flawed writing – not at the allegedly "uncomfortable" nature of this wry tragicomedy. The playwright has essentially penned the gay "Godspell," and his flippant and inconsistent treatment of the compelling issues at hand is the real sin. The playwright even hints at his own self-doubts via a narrator who desperately tries to appease the audience by insisting there are no tricks up the players’ sleeves and that they intend no malice.

Borrowing heavily from the religious pageant genre, McNally has his performers take on multiple roles that illuminate the most recognizable "greatest hits" from Jesus Christ’s life. The play follows a contemporary young gay man named Joshua who calls together 12 disciples and embarks on a bittersweet journey to fulfill his destiny as a savior proving to the world that all people are created in God’s image and, therefore, deserving of unconditional love.

That message’s beauty and potency cannot be denied. However, McNally is so eager to turn Joshua into the "King of Queens" that he unwittingly demonstrates a reverse form of intolerance – especially toward women. Mary is written as a self-centered airhead whose only goal in life is to go out dancing, and Joshua’s high school "girlfriends" are either sluts or nerdy bookish types. He also includes a fair share of stereotyped straight males – from a brash high school football coach to homophobic jocks. Not to mention the assorted gay cliches, especially the actor playing Thaddeus who quips, "Thaddeus was a hair dresser. Does anyone have a problem with that?"

In addition to his one-sided take on the life of Christ, McNally commits a number of dramatic faux pas. The play begins in modern-day Corpus Christi, Texas – from Joshua’s birth in a seedy motel to his travails at Pontius Pilate Catholic High School – then abruptly shifts to Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The last half isn’t much different from those overly beatific Hollywood biblical epics. Here we meet a few centurions and a resurrected Lazarus (one of the most ridiculous scenes), and more confusion arises when the Last Supper alternates between Passover and Easter.

Now some may argue that the latter incongruity illustrates a Judeo-Christian merging of philosophies. But McNally seems to haphazardly pick and choose religious stories and themes that suit his personal agenda or experiences. His own Catholic high school experiences no doubt inspired the early part of the play. But why Joshua ends up in ancient Jerusalem is baffling.

McNally awkwardly moves from a metaphoric structure to a literal one. By jumping back to the Jerusalem of Christ’s time, he is almost forced to examine the complex religious, social and political issues surrounding the Jewish populace. But he does not, opting instead for a superficial "Romans versus Joshua" melodrama.

Even McNally’s attempts to criticize the Catholic church’s misrepresentation of Christ’s message of universal love are half-realized because he never presents a balanced interpretation of the multifarious issues injected into this play – in fact, McNally does not establish any sort of concrete viewpoint. A segment on gay marriage – that has the potential for being its own important play – seems thrown in for trendy effect, as does a blatantly silly segment on the three wise men reimagined as three bellhops bearing gifts of a sled, champagne and Cuban cigars.

All of that said, director Stephen Rader must be commended for his genuinely moving production. Randy Goetz is particularly graceful and sincere as Joshua, with Patrick Rybarczyk’s tormented, impassioned and ambivalent Judas a stirring counterpoint. The rest of the cast tackles an impressive range of characters and emotions with fiery honesty.

But, regardless of this outstanding production, "Corpus Christi" remains a deeply flawed play. One has to wonder why McNally would revert to religion to address chronic injustices against homosexuals (except to expose the flaws of fanatical religious intolerance). Wouldn’t it be more admirable and productive for a playwright of McNally’s stature to create a whole new model – preferably a less loaded secular one -- for exploring the gay experience?•

"Corpus Christi" has been extended through Sept. 1 at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets: $20-$25. Call 773-883-1090.

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