CORPUS CHRISTI


MCCV’s brilliantly directed and exquisitely performed production of
Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi is currently thrilling audiences at the
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, moving them to laughter and tears as it did the
many Southern (and Northern) Californians who saw it over the course of
its one year journey to Scotland.

I’m one of the lucky ones who saw it here, and returned to see it again
and again, beginning with its run at the Metropolitan Community Church
of the Valley (in North Hollywood), then to a successful theatrical run at the
Zephyr (on Melrose), and more recently in special return performances at
MCCV, in San Francisco, and at WeHo Church. I’ve seen it seven times in
all!

Nevertheless, I approached it initially with a great deal of trepidation. I
knew that McNally’s controversial “gay Jesus” play had been produced
here once before, by Chad Allen. Fear of the protesters around the Lilian
Theater had kept me from seeing that production, a decision I regret. I
knew also that McNally had written it for thirteen young male actors, and
that MCCV’s production had not only women in the cast, but a wider age
range. I emailed cast members James Brandon and Karl Warden about
my concerns. Was this a legitimate production or just some church group’s
attempt at theater? Was this production true to McNally’s aims? Would
the “gay angle” be diluted by the mixed gender cast?

Both actors wrote me back long and thoughtful messages, insisting that
yes, this was a professional production and that no, the male/female cast
did not detract from McNally’s themes but rather enhanced them.

So I went, on June 23, 2006, to MCC of the Valley, and from the moment
the actors entered the bare church and began setting up the stage
(which they do before every performance), I knew I was in for something
potentially life altering. As Carolyn Almos (portraying John the Baptist),
began baptizing each cast member: “(Insert name of actor), I adore you
and I baptize you (insert name of disciple),” I felt shivers and I knew I would
be back to see this production again, though who could have imagined
that my seventh time would be over a year later, on July 20, 2007?

Many might expect that a play about Jesus (called Joshua here), even
one set in Corpus Christi, Texas, even one with a gay Jesus figure, would be
somber and take itself very seriously. Surprisingly, the production was full of
hilarity, and profanity, and equally surprisingly, of reverence and faith. A
heady mix.

And the cast being almost equally divided between male and female
actors worked! For certain scenes and characters, the actors’ gender was
respected. Joshua and his high school love/lover Judas are both
portrayed by men, as are Bartholomew and James, whose marriage
ceremony is conducted by Joshua. But in just about every other instance,
having actors play characters regardless of their gender simply
emphasized the universality of McNally’s story.

Over the year, 23 actors played the 13 roles, and one of the pleasures of
returning again and again was seeing new faces move into familiar roles. I
saw Steve Callahan, playing Bartholomew, get to marry four different
James: Karl Warden, David Shofner, Mark Colbert, and Steve Hasley. Lucky
guy! And some actors played more than one role. Paul Denniston was
John the Baptist in one performance, and Peter (who doubles as the Virgin
Mary) in another. Chris Payne, who was Thaddeus in the original runs,
returned just before the journey to Edinburgh to play Judas, a part
originated by Austen Rey and later played by director Arnzen. Some of
the cast remained steadfast through the entire 13 plus months: Jan
Ambler as Andrew, James Brandon as Joshua, Sheilagh Brooks as James
“the Less,” Elizabeth Cava as Matthew, Molly O’Leary as Thomas, David
Pevsner as Philip, and the aforementioned Callahan as Bartholomew.
Others whom I saw one or more times were Amanda Axelrod, Melissa
Caulfield, Todd Heughens, Michael-Anthony Nozzi, and Devin Sidell. Suzanne
Santos and Scott Presley also appeared, though I didn’t see them perform.

It would take pages to talk about all the amazing work these actors did,
and someone would surely get left out. Suffice it to say that each gave
heart and soul to his/her characterizations, and in roles played by several
actors, each brought his/her own strengths to the role.

However to not mention the transcendent work of James Brandon as
Joshua would be unthinkable. With his piercing eyes and resonant voice,
Brandon commands the stage at all times. In Brandon’s inspired hands, no
one could doubt that these twelve disciples would follow this man
anywhere. His performance of Joshua as a child, ridiculed by his classmates
and teachers, and later as a teenager discovering his attraction to men,
and more specifically to Judas, is heartbreakingly perfect. And the final
moment of Joshua’s agony on the cross are truly gut-wrenching.

Though the play worked best at the Zephyr, Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting
design being most effective there with nothing to distract attention from
the stage, it was powerful wherever it was performed. I’m told that one of
their most memorable experiences was in a room with nothing but chairs,
whatever lights were available, and a boombox in a church in San
Bernardino. One of Arnzen’s inspired choices was to end the play with
Sarah MacLaughlin’s haunting song Answer. I cannot hear this song, or
even recall its melody without tearing up, and I’m sure that even played
on that San Bernardino boombox, those in that small church felt the same.

So…a play that began well over a year ago in a gay church in North
Hollywood has traveled halfway around the world to Edinburgh. Who
would have thought? Audience members in Scotland have posted the
same words of astonishment and praise that those here in California have
shared with friends and even strangers. I can’t help but wonder if the
Fringe Festival is not the end of the journey, but merely the latest step in
what must surely be the definitive production of Corpus Christi.

JUNE 2006 to AUGUST 2007, MCCV, NORTH HOLLWYOOD; ZEPHYR
THEATRE, LOS ANGELES; MCC WEST HOLLYWOOD; SAN FRANCISCO; SAN
BERNARDINO; WEHO CHURCH, WEST HOLLYWOOD; EDINBURGH FRINGE
FESTIVAL, EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND.

–Steven Stanley

 2008 Update: Corpus Christi returned to WeHo Church for an Easter 2008 performance and proved to be, if possible, even more powerful than ever. James Brandon’s Joshua continues to be the deeply moving foundation on which the production is built, with Jan Ambler, Sheilagh Brooks, Elizabeth Cava, Molly O’Leary and David Pevsner continuing in the roles which they originated and have made their own. Melissa Caulfield showed real growth in the role of John The Baptist, and the enchanting Devin Sidell returned for the first time since the Zephyr run to open the evening with her moving “Were You There?” Ensemble members in new roles kept the Easter performance fresh and new. Steve Callahan in the role of Judas channeled his darker side in a powerful piece of acting. Steve Hasley took over Callahan’s role opposite Mark “Colby” Colbert, both actors doing excellent work as the gay couple Joshua marries. Director Nic Arnzen brought many fresh touches to various roles, including air-high-heeled Mary, and the part of Thaddeus was played for the first time by a woman, Suzanne Santos, possibly the best yet in the role.

Corpus Christi lives on, with a 2008 U.S. college tour planned as well as performances in Ireland and a 10th anniversary production later this year in New York. A show that was scheduled to run just four weeks, keeps growing and growing. Perhaps it is just another of Joshua’s many miracles.

Steven Stanley
April 23, 2008

For more recent updates about the journey of Corpus Christi from stage to screen in 2012, visit: www.corpuschristi-themovie.com

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