Jesus Christ died again when Matthew Shepard did," writes Steven Tangedal in his director's notes for Corpus Christi. It's been a year since Shepard was found tied to a barbed-wire fence on a cold October night in Laramie, Wyo., left to die in a crime of cowardice.
Denver's Theatre Group is staging a controversial production of a new play by Terrence McNally, which was written shortly before Laramie, but the creative team behind this production could not ignore the parallels. "A young man was seen as different," Tangedal continues, "and we fear what we don't know. He, too, was hung out on a different kind of cross, beaten and left to die by those who judged him for those differences."
Corpus Christi should not strike the average audience member as making bold forays into untested waters. You've probably heard the Christ story before. McNally's version is a basic highlight reel of the New Testament, with the savior healing his quota of lepers, turning water into wine and finding betrayal in an open-mouthed kiss. This story doesn't cover significant new ground or take any revolutionary detours -- unless interpretative licenses such as placing the story in Texas, shifting to the era of football and suggesting that Christ and his disciples were gay are out of sync with your Bible-study lessons.
Beginning with the virgin birth in a seedy Texas motel room serenaded by the "sounds of love" penetrating through the paper-thin walls, McNally's script pokes fun at the gospel story without ever aiming to offend or disrespect any of the characters. Corpus Christi offers a realistic and lighthearted interpretation in the vein of Godspell and even Jesus Christ Superstar, with a disgruntled Joseph, suspicious of his wife's immaculate conception and critical of his son's lack of football prowess, berating him with the taunt that he "throws like a girl." Joshua (his parents didn't want to name him Jesus, since in Texas, the name would make people think he's Hispanic) does earn a couple varsity letters -- in speech and drama -- and the admiration of a young gay classmate named Judas.
From there on, McNally's interpretation is mostly a matter of giving a specific slant to Joshua's growing persecution. The core ideals and values remain in place: love of neighbors and acceptance of enemies, charity, peace, understanding and all that jazz. Just as Godspell used outcast-hippie culture as a modern vehicle for the good word, Corpus Christi uses gay culture as the target of religious intolerance. Joshua takes the idea of "brotherly love" to the extreme, perhaps, loving his disciples not wisely but too well, and the excrement hits the air conditioner when he performs a marriage ceremony uniting two of his disciples.
Corpus Christi has attracted criticism and protest wherever it has played. From a controversial opening in New York a year ago to its regional premiere in Denver at the Theater on Broadway, where churches boasted: "We do not celebrate diversity; we celebrate the truth," those protests have hardly stirred enough sentiment to capture anyone's attention but the cast's, making their way to the backstage door.
It's no surprise that the hype -- even the self-promotional billing that this is four-time Tony-winner Terrence McNally's "most controversial piece" -- isn't entirely justified by the relatively tame play. Steven Tangedal's tasteful direction makes for an accessible production that is more concerned with comforting its audience than with threatening them. The artifice of the stage's fourth wall is always undermined, as the actors directly address the audience, confiding in them the secrets of the stage and eliminating any barriers. Joshua and his disciples are dressed in white, button-down shirts and khaki pants, making them seem more like classmates at a prep school than subversive zealots.
Tangedal elicits sterling performances from his ensemble cast of 13, finding more depth than one would have suspected was lurking in the sometimes shallow waters of large-cast local theater. Florence, Colo., native August Mergelman makes his Denver-area debut as Joshua in an even-keeled but earthly and vulnerable performance. Mergelman turns Joshua into the Everyman the character has always claimed to be, gaining confidence as he matures while remaining apprehensive and squeamish about the suffering foretold at his birth. Gary Culig is a wonderful foil as Judas, playing up the character's puckish charm over the more conventional devilish temptor. Culig's Judas is like the small-time coke dealer in the dorm room down the hall, offering "harmless highs," free for friends.
The play runs nearly two hours, without intermission, and doesn't quite have the firepower to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but McNally's script remains characteristically sharp, offering a provocative interpretation of a familiar story with particular resonance for anyone struggling with questions of faith in the midst of exclusion and condemnation.