October 5, 2001


Corpus Christi

reviewed by
Lynn Trenning






















For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

For more information about Off-Tryon, please visit offtryon.org.

(aired 10/10 on WFAE)

How do you tell the story of the New Testament in a way that captures the attention of people who haven't been listening? One way is to set the story in Corpus Christi, Texas, alienate Jesus from his parents, and make Judas and Jesus lovers. That is how playwright Terrence McNally presents the stories of the Gospel in his play Corpus Christi, being performed by Off-Tryon Theatre Company in NODA.

While downtown Charlotte erupted with controversy and protest over a nude scene in Angels in America in 1996, in this play Jesus blesses a gay union and cures a man with AIDS with no fanfare at all. Go figure. Maybe the fundamentalists think that what goes on in the arts district won't bleed over to the general public. I for one hope it does.

This is not a perfect play, but it sure is interesting. It is funny and heartbreaking and horrible and sometimes obscene. The apostles are former hairdressers and architects, singers and lawyers, who are baptized on stage and introduced to the audience as the people they were before they left their professions to follow their savior. Dressed like models in a Gap commercial, they are all wretchedly human. The apostles drink and have sex and indulge in petty bickering, just like regular people.

But at its essence, the play stays true to the spirit of the Bible as I understand it. High school senior Eric Foss plays Joshua/Jesus as a terribly sweet, tender boy who leads by love, not authority. Also notable are performances by Chris O'Neill as Judas, and Brian Marlowe as Peter. Jesus is gentle and loving to a fault. In the bible Jesus upsets the Roman hierarchy by loving and empowering the disenfranchised, including women, the poor, and the sick. In Corpus Christi, McNally expands the definition of those Jesus loves to include homosexuals. And in both stories, Jesus is betrayed by those he loves the most.

The timeline and sense of place are often disjointed if you think about them too hard. But director John Hartness transcends the geographic gap between the traditional Middle East setting and the arid plains of Texas with seven tons of fine white sand, which cover the stage, the aisles and the platformed set. It is awe inspiring, and quite effective in transporting Jesus from a beach in Texas to a dessert in Palestine. Yet I couldn't stop thinking about who the heck is going to stick around to clean up THAT mess? I encourage the audience to take off their shoes and enjoy being part of the scenery.

Throughout the play we hear what Jesus is haunted by his whole life, the eerie pounding of nails into wood. And even though we all know the end of the story before it begins, the realistic torture of the man named Jesus, who refuses to speak an ill word of anyone, is almost unbearable to watch.

During one of their infrequent dialogues, the voice of God tells Jesus, "All men are divine. That is the secret you will teach them." There will be people who say this is blasphemy. I tend to think there are plenty of people, disenfranchised or not, who will take great comfort in these words.

Lynn Trenning, October 5, 2001

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