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Come Out of the Closet, Jesus 

Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi opens in NoDa

Opening in NoDa barely three weeks after the horrific attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi brings us powerful lessons about facing down the threats of gutless, mean-spirited religious zealots. Unfortunately, the most potent of these lessons are not found in McNally's script. It's the notorious production history of Corpus that resonates most pointedly in the aftermath of September 11th.

The drama, currently presented by Off-Tryon Theatre Company in their cozy studio quonset on Cullman Avenue, retells the New Testament story culminating in the crucifixion of Christ. A few notable changes were made in the Gospel according to Terrence.

For reasons best beknownst to the writer, half of the story is transposed to modern-day Corpus Christi, Texas, intermittently shuttling back to Ancient Israel. And in case you hadn't gotten the word, this updated Jesus is gay. He not only condones gay marriage, he sanctifies it. And Judas' kiss takes on a whole new meaning.

Word certainly reached the New York Post prior to the Off-Broadway previews of Corpus in 1998. Headlines blared out the impending hanky-panky between Jesus and his disciples. Right-wing nutballs screamed blasphemy without seeing either the play or the script, issuing death threats if the production opened.

Then in an act of cravenness that would have been much less astounding here in Charlotte, the Manhattan Theatre Club announced it was canceling the show for fear of being unable to guarantee their actors' safety. McNally was outraged by the cowardly self-censorship, and left-wing liberals issued volley after volley of fierce denunciation.

To complete the Carolina/Gotham role reversal, internationally renowned playwright Athol Fugard, then appearing in Charleston at Spoleto USA, threatened to pull his new play, The Captain's Tiger, out of the Manhattan Theatre Club's lineup for the 1998-99 season. Duly chastened, MTC backpedaled and reinstated McNally's play and, in a visionary move offering their audience a sneak preview of our Terrorist Millennium, set up metal detectors at the door. They went on with the show -- 56 performances without bloodshed.

I can proudly say that Charlotte greeted Corpus with far less sensationalism and far more cool. No front page headlines in the Observer. No posturing by our County Commissioners. No attention-grabbing pickets by local Christian crazies.

Truth is, Corpus is a rather reverential piece, devoid of the nudity that spiced McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!. You'd have to be a rather virulent homophobe to be upset by the goings-on at Off-Tryon. Homosexuality is accepted, rather than avidly promoted. You'll see some hand-holding between a couple of the disciples, some cuddling -- and a couple of dramatic kisses -- between Jesus and Judas. While the lyrical dialogue occasionally drifts into the loose and profane, there's no heavy petting, let alone raunch.

Under John Hartness' disarmingly relaxed direction, the simplicity and sincerity of McNally's script shine with a gentle warmth. The entire stage is caked with sand -- so is the ground beneath the audience's feet -- and strands of Christmas lights figure prominently in Hartness' lighting design. No, I didn't kick off my shoes and socks to watch barefoot. But I was invited.

There's a footloose, improvised feel to the opening ceremony when each actor is introduced by his real name and then "baptized" into his stage role. Mike Farmer, as John, is marvelously suited for these priestly ministrations, sagely, genial, and quietly confident. After each baptism, the disciple testifies directly to the audience, casually preparing us for the transplant of the story from Nazareth to Texas. While some of the disciples' professions are ancient -- lawyer, physician, fisherman -- contemporary flavoring is added when we meet a hairdresser, a high school teacher (from Pontius Pilate High), and a masseur.

Chris O'Neill's intro as Judas wasn't the weakest among the disciples, but it ought to be one of the strongest. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, because O'Neill grew positively charismatic as the evening progressed -- with a pleasingly powerful Texas manliness. Peter Smeal as Thaddeus the hairdresser and Hank West as Thomas the actor moonlighting as a truck driver also provided agreeable tastes of Texas.

McNally is coy about letting us know which of his players is portraying the son of God. He's designated as Joshua in the dramatis personae, invoking the more authoritative translation of the original Hebrew name, and the playwright emphasizes our protagonist's humanity more frequently than his divinity. Point is, he's refreshingly like us, doubtful that he is worthy of his divine mission.

Hartness makes perhaps his most audacious choice in tapping Eric Foss for the role. Since he starred rather superbly last year in King Arthur's Magic Sword for Children's Theatre, there could be no doubting that Foss possessed the necessary purity and majesty.

But he's just a kid, for Christ's sake, not yet graduated from high school. When O'Neill as Judas hovers around the lad and seduces him, I can't help thinking that we have an adult in his prime corrupting a minor. While Corpus could definitely benefit from a few more hard edges, I'm not sure this one helps.

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