SPECIAL REVIEW: Corpus Christi – One You Believe or One You Don’t

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

I would like to start this review with the reason for its existence.  Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi was originally slated to run at Iron Crow Theatre beginning April 6th.  In late March, accusations of professional and sexual misconduct directed at Iron Crow leadership started to come out in the community, accusations that the cast felt made it impossible to continue forward with the show.   They decided to cancel the production (their statement is above) and instead perform the show as a free, one-night-only staged reading last night.  I have spoken out about this issue on The Bad Oracle Facebook page, and I don’t need to rehash my feelings here about whether Iron Crow should have handled community fall-out better (which they should have) or if there were ways to mediate early on so that the production might have happened (which there were) or even if Iron Crow is indeed “Baltimore’s only queer theatre” (which they aren’t).  The purpose of this review is to provide feedback to the artists who worked incredibly hard on this show.  I don’t usually review staged readings because they aren’t usually at a place in development where a critical review seems necessary, or fair, but as this show was intended to be fully realized, I feel that it stands just fine.

Christi is a Passion Play that imagines Jesus and his disciples as queer men living in deep Texas in the 1950s.  McNally is explicit, yep, they’re fucking, and that alone is enough to make the religious right go batshit, which they promptly did when the play premiered in 1998.  At the same time, though, he also suggests that applying a sexuality to God is a little small in scope.  Jesus (Sean Dynan), or “Joshua” to his friends, is certainly queer, but he makes it clear that what he does with his body is honestly the least of it.  In fact, it is is Joshua’s rejection of toxic masculinity, his open, soft, and loving nature, that seems to be one of the queerest things about him, at least as far as the townsfolk are concerned.  Remember that in Texas in the 1950s, holding a cigarette the wrong way or liking flowers a little too much could make a man the target of violence.

I would dearly have loved to see the full version of this show, but I will say that Christi certainly doesn’t suffer as a staged reading.  There is a raw, intense, urgent sense to it that works incredibly well with the material.  Jesus and his disciples were outlaws, after all, and the cramped, dark, breathing room, lit with a candle, felt illegal.  It felt like truth.  Add to that that these thirteen actors are one of the best ensemble casts I have ever seen.  It isn’t that there aren’t good or rocky or indifferent individual moments, because there are, but the electricity, the power, comes from the lightening of the men together.  It’s never once occurred to me, in the hundreds of times I’ve heard this story, to be jealous of the friendship of the disciples, but that’s how they make me feel.  They are so locked together, locked in, that it makes the show work and the staging seem instinctive.  They nail McNally’s, script, one that blends comedy with genuine pathos, flawlessly, which is a really difficult tone to achieve.

It’s funny that, in many ways, Jesus Christ himself is one of the least interesting parts of his own story.  I think it’s because Jesus is more of an allegory than a person, and so making him into an engaging, rounded character is kind of tough.  He often seems naggy or pedantic.  We all know What Jesus Would Do, is my point.  Dynan has some nice moments, especially in scenes with Mother Mary (Paul America), but he’s just too certain.  In moments of doubt, like when he is tested in the desert by the devil in the form of James Dean (a nicely understated Matthew Lindsay Payne, with a touch of acutely scary menace), I want to see a Jesus conflicted.  Dynan is frustratingly sure of himself.  It’s a character that really cries out for vast emotional range, and he went down the middle.  There are missed opportunities for tension between Dynan and Nick Maka, (Judas), but Maka is oddly relaxed for such a watchful character, though a beautiful, lyrical moment between the two as teens, one that marks a turning point in the show, emotionally, is played perfectly.

If Jesus as a character is a bit flat, the colorful disciples more than fill in the gaps with some seriously stand-out performances.  This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Tavish Forsyth in a couple of months (last in Iron Crow’s Cloud 9) and he’s a tricky actor to pin down, in a good way, maybe even approaching an exceptional way as he becomes more seasoned.  Here he is Philip, a disciple I honestly knew fuck-all about, and he comes in the honeyed tones of the hustler.  Forsyth is studied, careful, and the way he takes Philip from slithering to brittle to incredulous to changed, all in the course of a minute or two, is really breathtaking.  Justin Johnson has a strong, emotional monologue as Bartholomew, the doctor, who is also a healer of men thankyouverymuch.  He and the adorable, bowtied Jonathan Lightner (James, the teacher) have real chemistry.   David Brasington is as solid and upright as Simon Peter should be, making his eventual betrayal of Jesus all the more potent.  Nicholas Miles is an absolute scream as Simon (the sass does not quit) and is probably the funniest, if given a run for his money by Patrick Gorirossi as the “ever popular” Thomas.  Gorirossi also does astonishingly effective (it’s a staged reading, after all) non-verbal work in the Last Supper scene, and the way he says “Not I, Lord?” is heartbreaking.  If I have any qualms about the acting at all, it would be that some of the female characters are played gratingly broadly, with the exception of Paul America’s Mary, who is resonant, especially near the end in a moment that explains Mary’s betrayal of Jesus at the cross entirely.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that is the case with this staged reading of Corpus Christi.  I am proud of the actors who took it upon themselves to make this happen, and I am proud of the community who showed up to witness it.  This is a story, excellently told, about how the most divine human drives, love and passion and belief and and community and generosity and sacrifice, are also the most easily corrupted, twisted by outside forces into something ugly before you even know what’s happening.  It’s a point well taken.  My love and deepest thanks to the cast of Corpus Christi.

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