I started reviewing stuff at Diversionary Theatre in 2003, when the company mounted fare like Another American:
Asking and Telling and Love! Valour! Compassion! For all their very good production values, those shows were colored by pity, as if the gay community considered itself hopelessly victimized amid societal ignorance. Soon after came the trenchant, biographical M. Butterfly, which absolutely knocked me on my wallet. Wow! Diversionary, it seemed, was hardly the temple of self-flagellation I thought I'd initially uncovered.
But Corpus Christi, Diversionary's 22nd season closer, represents a disconcerting trip back to those original assignments. The parallels between Christ's sufferings and those of a young gay Texan in the 1950s are just too easy to draw, leaving little to the imagination. Playwright Terrence McNally (who, ironically, wrote Love! Valour! Compassion!) has also misread history—he authored this in 1998, the year a concerted religious flap fueled some declarations of tolerance for gays, and he's left them (and us) with a depiction of the opposite. Ten years later, even as the Church is doggedly at odds with gay culture, Corpus Christi looks and feels like a cast-off, a lone, insistent tribute to gay history's darker side amid a more enlightened public mind.
Boy, I wanted to like this. There's such good ensemble work to behold as John (the outstanding Rachael VanWormer) baptizes the wildly divergent, Texified apostolic figures. Judas (Rich Carrillo) likes the theater and has a big dick; the name “Jesus” makes the Savior sound Mexican: Such trippy nuances are all over this play, and L.A. director Nic Arnzen cast the 13 actors very well to type. And I was more than a little surprised to learn that Trevor Bowles, who plays Joshua/Jesus, is only a high-school senior. His youth helps Josh seem believably naïve, yet he gives his character a seriously hard ass when the time is right.
Arnzen, though, has irredeemably bought into McNally's pessimistic take. The crucifixion scene comes complete with a wooden cross and a re-enactment of hot-hand, a game the Roman soldiers invented as they slapped around the Son; all that would have read far more effectively without that gimmickry, because at least our imaginations would have been put into play (just like they are at the thought of the real thing). The program doesn't list a costume designer; it might be that there isn't one, as all the cast members are barefoot and clad in simple white pants and shirts. They look more like cultists than true religious adherents—and cultism is the last thing on gay Joshua's mind.
Say what you want about Jesus, but his murder was one of the most heinous acts in the history of civilization.
McNally's parallel falls infinitely short of that. He, like Christ, is trying to say we're all divine—and while both men are right about that, they also understand that most of society is clueless to the concept of divinity. We didn't need McNally (or Arnzen) to tell us that, especially in such a bland and artless way.
FYI: Arnzen is based in L.A. So is Josh Chambers, creator-director of Sledgehammer Theatre's good Miss Julie, mounted in April. Please don't misunderstand: I've enjoyed lots of the L.A. theater I've written about, and I think it gets short shrift, especially from its press, amid the city's notoriety as a film capital. It's just that that out-of-town presence seems a little conspicuous when we get it two months in a row, especially with the size of the theater pool around here.
Just thinkin' out loud. This review is based on the matinée performance of May 4. Corpus Christi runs through June 1 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights. $29-$33. 619-220-0097 or www.diversionary.org.