I’ll admit it. I was a Doubting Thomas. As curious as I was about seeing a fresh new take on Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, the one production I’d seen previously at Long Beach’s Garage Theatre had not boded well for a second, nor did the discovery that the show was being helmed by a young actor making his directorial debut. Still, the chance to see Corpus Christi again was too tempting to turn down, and August being the quietest theatrical month of the year, this skeptic decided to give the Garage a second chance.
Now I’m not sure if the Biblical Doubting Thomas had a hat to eat, but having now seen Corpus Christi at the Garage, this reviewer humbly eats his chapeau. I was blown away by Tito Ortiz’s brilliant directorial debut in a beautifully conceived, designed, and executed production of one of McNally’s most loved, hated, and misunderstood plays.
Corpus Christi is the Tony Award-winning playwright’s highly controversial reimagining of the Gospels as set in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas—written to be performed by an all-male cast playing both disciples and supporting roles, male and female.
Where McNally and his play drew the ire and protests of religious fundamentalists was in its depiction of Jesus as a gay man, at least some of whose disciples were also gay, including Judas, whom McNally imagines to be the proverbial love of His life.
Protestors, virtually none of whom had seen or read the play, missed the point (as they seem to do so well in matters Biblical). Corpus Christi is not about a “gay Jesus” per se, nor does it “defame His Holy Name” as picketers insisted. What it does do—with humor, drama, and more than a few four-letter epithets—is present Jesus’ life and words in a new context, and to an audience whose experiences with organized religion may have made them resistant to what is in essence a very humanity-affirming message.
This message has now come to Long Beach in a production that deserves to be seen by any lover of fine theater within driving radius of the Garage. Corpus Christi’s message spoke so strongly to the production’s 20something fledgling director that he convinced the Garage, not only to include Corpus Christi as part of its current season, but also to entrust him with its staging, a decision whose wisdom is borne out by this quite miraculous production.
Ortiz has reconfigured the black-box Garage so that a mere two rows of thirteen seats each—running lengthwise opposite sides of its rectangle—make its audience an extension of Corpus Christi’s cast of thirteen, a concept particularly effective when the Last Supper is performed at one end of the rectangle, the table extending to include the entire audience as supper guests.
Corpus Christi begins with one of its actors informing those in attendance that “there are no tricks up our sleeve. No malice in our hearts.” Then, as another actor begins to sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” each performer is welcomed into the play by the actor portraying John The Baptist with the words, “I bless you. I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I adore you, and christen you …,” followed by the name of the disciple he will be playing.
Ortiz gives his actors free rein to enjoy these opening moments, as the baptized receive anything from a few drops of water to a real drenching, a joyously irreverent (though by no means sacrilegious) tone that will be maintained throughout the production’s engrossing, intermissionless hour and forty minutes.
Whatever initial qualms this reviewer had about the production’s entirely non-Equity cast were erased from the moment each one first spoke. Whether BFA grads or theatrical neophytes, Ortiz’s cast display a naturalness and ease with McNally’s words which belies their youth and (in some cases) lack of a lengthy résumé. Twelve very different actors, each with a distinctive take on his role(s), and at their center, Jeffrey Fargo’s revelatory work as Joshua, as McNally has rechristened the Jesus of Corpus Christi.
Words cannot suffice to describe the many ways director Ortiz, his cast, and his topnotch design team have brought Corpus Christi to such vivid life. As a director, Ortiz is unfailingly imaginative, particularly considering the production’s obvious shoestring budget. Yammy Swoot’s lighting design (Swoot’s name seems suspiciously close to assistant director Jamie Sweet’s) and Matthew Anderson’s sound design combined with Geraldine Uy’s costumes and highly ingenious props work wonders with Ortiz and Sweet’s simple but effective set design.
No Corpus Christi can succeed without a commanding leading man, and Fargo’s performance commands attention from his first words, despite (or perhaps because of) being cast against type. Where other productions may have cast a more traditional leading man in the role, Ortiz’s choice of an actor more easily imagined as math geek or theater nerd proves inspired. McNally does after all paint Joshua as a bullied misfit of a child, one more likely to break out into South Pacific’s “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” than play football with the jocks, and it’s precisely because Fargo is not the first actor you’d imagine playing Jesus that his performance works so well, that and the indefinable something called talent that commands an audience’s attention and wins their hearts.
Supporting Fargo are Paul Anderson (Bartholomew, Motel Manager, Peggy Powell, Nun), Jeff Budner (James The Less, God, Billy Brown, Poor Woman), Matt Craig (Andrew, Bert Moody, Pilate’s Wife, Crucified Man), Robert Flores (Thaddeus, Room Service #2, Centurion, Barabbas), Will Gorin (Matthew, Coach/Priest, Truck Driver #3, High Priest) , Matt Guerra (James, Woman Next Door, Mrs. McElroy, Little Boy), Brandon Kasper (John, Dub Taylor, Simon of Cyranae), Beau McCoy (Philip, Joseph, Beau Hunter, Truck Driver #2, Carpenter, Pilate), Raymond McFarland (Judas), Will Proctor (Thomas, Room Service #3, Patricia Rudd, Sister Joseph, Lazarus, Soldier), Shawn Stenger (Simon, Room Service #1, High School Singer, Penny, Crucified Man), and Evan Wallace (Peter, Mary, Spider Sloan, James Dean).
While each of the above contributes immeasurably to Corpus Christi’s success, a number of cast members stand out in particular. Gorin’s versatility shines as a bullying coach/priest, a blind trucker with a Texas twang, and a menacing high priest; Guerra’s drama teacher Mrs. McElroy is a fluttery delight; McCoy gives power and stage presence to hustler Philip and a half-dozen others; Proctor makes for an adorably dorky Patricia and a divine Sister Joseph; and Wallace’s chain-smoking tough gal Mary and sexy James Dean are both star turns. Finally, McFarland positively smolders as a smooth-talking, muscular, nipple-ringed Judas, whose interracial relationship with Joshua adds an extra layer of edginess to McNally’s already envelope-pushing play.
A Word To The Wise: A mere twenty-six seats are available for each performance of Corpus Christi’s remaining three Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekends, adding up to a total of only 234 very lucky ticketholders (barring an extension or move to another space, either of which this reviewer highly recommends).
Tito Ortiz and company have turned this Doubting Thomas into a True Believer just as they have turned this production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi into something quite miraculous indeed.
The Garage Theatre, 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach.
– Steven Stanley
August 5, 2011