Director Tito Covert-Ortiz has restaged his Scenie-winning vision of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi with its original star Jeffrey Fargo at Santa Ana’s Theatre Out and the result is an even more powerfully moving production than it was at Long Beach’s Garage Theatre the first time round.

CorpusChristi07 McNally fans know Corpus Christi as 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.

McNally and his play drew the ire and protests of religious fundamentalists at its 1998 debut for its depiction of Jesus as a gay man called Joshua, 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. 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 arrived in conservative Orange County in a production that deserves to be seen by any lover of fine theater within driving radius of Theatre Out.

Corpus Christi begins with actor Ricky Abilez informing those in attendance that “there are no tricks up our sleeve. No malice in our hearts.” Then, as Ty Brittingham begins to sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” each actor is welcomed into the play by Craig Johnson’s 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.

The play’s multiple supporting roles are then assigned “at random” to the twelve disciples, who express emotions ranging from delight to disappointment at the assorted parts each will be playing, setting Corpus Christi’s joyously irreverent (though by no means sacrilegious) tone, one that will be maintained throughout the production’s engrossing, intermissionless hour and forty minutes.

CorpusChristi01 Though by the very nature of the story it has to tell Corpus Christi journeys into dark territory as Joshua returns to his hometown to meet the fate that has been foretold for him (he hears the ominous pounding of nails from his earliest childhood), McNally’s play is filled with humor.

Joshua’s prom night has him fumbling awkwardly with what he thinks are date Patricia Rudd’s breasts, but missing them by a mile. Our hero hitches a ride with a truck driver who’s as blind as a bat and has been proudly manipulating a big-wheeler since boyhood. When Joshua offers to preside at the same-sex wedding of two of his disciples, one of them expresses surprise, citing Leviticus, to which Joshua replies, “Now why would you want to memorize a verse like that?”

Indeed, part of Corpus Christi’s strength as a play comes from the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, and you may find yourself laughing and weeping simultaneously, no small feat.

Theatergoers with sensitive ears—even those who might have no problem with passionate same-sex kisses—are cautioned that explicit language abounds. For instance, “Fuck me! Fuck me!” “I’m fucking you! I’m fucking you” is not exactly verbiage associated with the Nativity, but that’s what gets shouted from the room adjoining the stable in which Mary is giving birth. And who knows, it might even be historically accurate.

Only the most closed-minded of Christians should find themselves unmoved by Corpus Christi—its final ten minutes are devastating—and even non-believers may discover a new awareness of the power of this two-centuries-old tale.

Displaying a naturalness and ease with McNally’s words, Ortiz’s very attractive young-and-youngish, gay-and-straight cast features a mix of Theatre Out vets and newbies, a number of them students in Cal State Fullerton’s illustrious theater arts BFA program, each with a distinctive take on his role(s), and at their center, Jeffrey Fargo, once again extraordinarily powerful as Joshua.

CorpusChristi04 Here’s what I wrote about Fargo’s performance back in August of 2011 when he debuted it at Long Beach’s Garage Theatre:

“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.”

Those who caught Fargo’s recent display of versatility and dramatic chops in Theatre Out’s edgy, provocative The Dying Gaul will be even more impressed by his work in Corpus Christi, a performance that has only grown in the past three years.

Supporting Fargo are Zach Porter as teacher James, Woman Next Door, Mrs. McElroy, and Little Boy; Keith Bennett as restaurateur Judas Iscariot; Brittingham as singer Simon, High School Singer, Penny, and Crucified Man; director Covert-Ortiz, stepping into the roles usually played by Michael D. H. Phillips: masseur Andrew as Bert Moody, Pilate’s Wife, and Tourette’s victim at the performance reviewed; William Gorin as lawyer Matthew, Coach/Priest, Truck Driver, and High Priest; Jason Hughes as hustler Philip, Joseph, Beau Hunter, Carpenter, and Pilate; Johnson as writer John, Dub Taylor, and Simon of Cyranae; Andy Kelly as architect James The Less, God, Billy Brown, and Poor Woman; Sam Kostka as hairdresser Thaddeus, Centurion, and Barabbas; Abilez as doctor Bartholomew, Motel Manager, Peggy Powell, and Nun; David Tran as actor Thomas, Patricia Rudd, Sister Joseph, Lazarus, and Soldier; and Christopher Yu as Peter, Mary, Spider Sloan, and James Dean.

CorpusChristi05 While each of the above has his outstanding moments, a number of cast members merit special mention. Yu displays leading man presence and an easy sex appeal as James Dean in addition to having great fun with a chain-smoking, Texas-drawling Mary. Gorin excels in a trio of macho roles—abusive coach, wry trucker, and outraged priest. Tran’s actor Thomas loves the limelight and lets you know it—deliciously. Brittingham displays sass—and gorgeous pipes—as Simon. Covert-Ortiz’s brief scene as a Tourette’s sufferer is a gut-wrenching one.

CorpusChristi03 Covert-Ortiz stages Corpus Christi with considerable imagination and ingenuity on a plain black stage furnished with hardly more than a raked ramp and a few boxes. (The scenic design is his and Joey Baital’s.) Actors wear their own street clothes as they gather onstage before the production begins, then change into simple white dress shirts and slacks. (Costumes by David C. Carnevale.) Carnevale’s dramatic lighting aids enormously in setting and maintaining dramatic moods. Assorted props merit props as well.

Corpus Christi is produced by Baital and Carnevale. Alexis Stansfield is stage manager, Irene Keogh production intern, and Jeff Budner production assistant.

That this Orange County staging has failed to attract the protesters that might have greeted it in years past is testimony to how much times have changed over the sixteen years since its New York World Premiere. What has not changed is Corpus Christi’s power to move an audience to laughter and tears and to get them to thinking, or rethinking, their beliefs, and not at all in a way that might be considered anti-religious. That is something quite miraculous indeed.

Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
April 26, 2014
Photos:  David C. Carnevale

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