My goodness. After a rather quiet year in San Antonio theater, the Cellar’s production of Corpus Christi—a re-imagining of the Christ story with a gay Jesus and his twelve flaming disciplines—has at last provoked the community into talking about theatre as an art form and vehicle for social thought. Predictably, it only took a nanosecond for the San Antonio Community of Congregations to condemn the play (as of then, not even in production) as “highly offensive” and to agitate for its removal from the season. (Their letter to the Playhouse has been transcribed here, by QSanAntonio. I assume it is accurate.)
Clearly, if the San Antonio Community of Congregations thinks that Corpus Christi is “highly offensive,” they need to see some genuinely offensive theater, and pronto. If anything, the play is too reverential and, to the extent to which it repeats and thus reinforces the major events of the Christ narrative, both conservative and, to be frank, a bit boring. (As the old joke goes, the book is better.) In terms of possible religious offense, the play doesn’t hold a candle to The Book of Mormon, the Musical! or Jerry Springer: The Opera; in many respects, SACOC should be counting its blessings. But there’s even more fun to be had, here: recognizing that its letter to the Playhouse might appear self-serving (which is true enough), SACOC manages to come off as patronizing as well: “[W]e feel that the crude portrayal of the homosexual men in this play is, at best, an exaggerated caricature that is insensitive also to our gay and lesbian community.” Um, seriously? We need the San Antonio Community of Congregations to protect gays from the work of Terrence McNally? What’s next -- saving us from the horrors of La Cage Aux Folles?
It’s time, then, to leave SACOC in their state of high dudgeon and limp dramaturgy; perhaps they can rally the troops against Jesus Christ Superstar next. As for Corpus Christi: well, it’s an interesting idea with a flawed execution. When McNally crafts scenes that continue the analogy of Jesus-as-homo into other areas of gay life—such as the healing of an HIV-positive club boy, or the officiating of a gay wedding—the play makes good on its central conceit: the result is a thought-provoking riff on how gays often figure in the contemporary imagination as the equivalent of Jesus’ publicans and sinners. Too often, however, McNally lets such metaphors peter (or, if you’d prefer, Peter) out, with several episodes (such as the miracle of the fish, or the raising of the dead) as straightforward and plodding as a church pageant. Indeed, McNally’s tone of reverence, along with his penchant for ritual, provides the evening’s low points: the slow introduction and baptism of all twelve disciples plays like water-torture (I started glancing at my watch at disciple #6 and desperately calculated the remaining time). The same anxiety descended during a protracted, serial foot-kissing scene. (Fetishists rejoice! The rest of us, not so much.)
Still, director Gregory Hinojosa—often working in tandem with Felice Garcia’s striking lighting effects—did his best to bring dramatic interest to an overlong play. (Two hours, no intermission.) While the cast ran the gamut in ability, there was especially good work by Jonathan Itchon (as the titular corpus o’ Christ), and Gerardo Vallejo, a wry and watchable Thomas. Vernon Push and Alfredo Valdez’s sandy set was an unpleasant reminder of the Cellar Theater’s sauna-like atmosphere during the summer – if you can still get a ticket, dress very, very comfortably.
In many ways, the San Pedro Playhouse painted itself into a corner in terms of programming. Having made the (terrible) decision to schedule an “All-Texas” season—thereby eliminating from consideration 99.9999 percent of the world’s greatest plays—the Playhouse was stuck with trying to program a concluding work that was both Texan and gay, and ended up with Corpus Christi. But Corpus Christi isn’t even the best “gay” play by McNally: besides Love! Valour! Compassion!, for instance, there’s Some Men (2007), a far more interesting work, and even more appropriate for Pride Fest. (Some Men chronicles about 80 years in the life of American gay men, both pre- and post-Stonewell; it’s not exactly a masterpiece, but at least there’s full frontal nudity.) As a final offering in the Cellar’s season, Corpus Christi can't be ranked , then, as the finest pick from McNally’s substantial and gay-themed
--Thomas "Highly Offended" Jenkins, Current theater critic.