By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
Terrence McNally's 1998 play is like those paintings that portray Jesus as African or Latin -- an attempt to expand the meaning of "created in his image" -- but where those attempts broaden, Corpus Christi shrinks and excludes. Despite McNally's incredible acclaim, he isn't a very good writer. His recasting of Christianity is humorously mordant about Jesus' childhood and the gathering of the apostles, and pious about the crucifixion. Essentially, it's a bitter, gay Godspell without the songs.
To begin, the actors are christened with the names of the apostles. The cast takes on various roles to demonstrate the cruelties of Joshua's gay boyhood in 1950s Texas. ("Joshua" is a variant of "Jesus.") Mary is a foul-mouthed cracker who's overbearing towards her son. Josh (teli Cardaci) attends Pontius Pilate High, where the jocks torment him. He goes to the prom with the only sympathetic female character (but she grows up to be a biddy), and has his first sexual encounter with schoolmate Judas (James Marks). After being tempted in the desert, he begins to recruit his apostles. McNally treats sex very oddly -- Judas is the only apostle who appears to enjoy it. Josh seems to remain chaste after the desert ordeal, as do his followers upon their conversions.
New Conservatory Theatre Center director Ed Decker mounts the show simply, and among the generally capable performances, Michael Billingsley is a real charmer. As Judas, Marks can be fine, but in intense, dramatic sequences, he over-emotes.
You can't help but respond to the familiar images of violence and crucifixion, but McNally's (presumably unintentional) negative views of women and sex are disastrous, and his strivings at sacrament and art fail. McNally also grew up in Corpus Christi in the '50s, and you wonder who exactly this Christ figure is. McNally succeeds only at claiming Christ for himself: He's as guilty as those he would attack.