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Jesus of Texas

Mcnally Unsuccessfully Transports the New Testament to the Gulf Coast

This Little Piggy Went to Golgotha: Philip (Tudor Ivan) shows his devotion in the Spotlighters' Corpus Christi

By Jack Purdy | Posted 6/5/2002

Corpus Christi

Terrence McNally

The theater has done some funny things to the man known as Jesus Christ over the last 2,000 years. He's been recast as the original hippie, the first socialist revolutionary, a Semitic Merlin, and-- inevitably, given his perennial-bachelorhood and 12 male disciples--a gay-rights pioneer. At least that's how playwright Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class) pegged him in his 1997 work Corpus Christi, a play so combustible that it led to death threats being made against board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which originally produced the work. When Corpus Christi finally opened, 2,000 howling protesters showed up to rail against blasphemy.

Better they should have railed against its puzzling construction. While the production at Spotlighters is filled with fine, heartfelt performances (and excellent choral singing) from the 13 male cast members, McNally's play is a hodgepodge of skits that strains for relevance by partially reimagining Jesus as a "sensitive" high-school boy named Joshua in Corpus Christi, Texas, a town whose name means "body of Christ" in Latin.

Giddily and without warning, the action shifts back and forth between the Gulf Coast and Palestine during the governorship of Pontius Pilate--possibly because it would have been impolitic and illogical to have Jesus sealing his fate in Texas by slapping a Jewish rabbi who upbraids him for blessing a same-sex union. As a result, the tone of Corpus Christi varies wildly from campy prom scenes to the reverently treated raising of Lazarus from the dead, from a young Joshua warbling "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to a dramatically painful crucifixion.

Structurally, it's a mess--a mix of vaudeville and liturgy--but the Spotlighters manage to make it entertaining nonetheless, with cast members heartily embracing wildly varied roles. David Allen is hilarious as Joshua's unmarried, dance-loving Texas mom and appropriately stolid as the apostle Peter. Tudor Ivan, so muscular that his biceps have biceps, is scary as Joshua's Jim Beam-swilling carpenter dad, then moving as the repentant gay hustler who becomes the apostle Phillip. And Curtis Parker, who plays the apostle Thaddeus, also gets a total scene-stealing turn as the elderly nun who is Joshua's drama teacher.

But the heart of Corpus Christi centers on Judas (Brian Jacobs) and Joshua/Jesus (Tony Viglione). Jacobs bring a feral cynicism to his part, while Viglione is heartbreakingly effective as Joshua, who tries to deal with his outsider status by being invisibly polite. In Texas, the two are lovers, but McNally delicately avoids that when he moves back millennia, instead concentrating on the love between Bartholomew (John Hurley) and James (Stephen Davis) and leaving Jacobs, like Stephen Boyd gazing at Chuck Heston in Ben-Hur, to amply communicate Judas' real feelings through sidelong, smoldering glances at the Messiah.

Ultimately, there's an undertone of--there's no other word or it--homophobia in the relationship McNally has constructed here. After all, what could be a greater indictment of gay sexuality than the idea that your lover would, for a fistful of silver, betray you to certain execution?

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