The gospel according to Terrence McNally

Posted on 28 May 2010 at 12:01am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com
FAGATHA ‘CHRISTI’ | The cast of the touring show has performed the play as volunteers for five years.

Stephenville may have censored it, but the gay Texan’s controversial play ‘Corpus Christi’ will finally make its way to North Texas — by way of L.A.


CORPUS CHRISTI
Cathedral of Hope, 5910 Cedar Springs Road. June 4–6.
Friday–Sunday at 7:30 p.m., weekend matinees at 3 p.m.
$32–$52. CathedralofHope.com

For someone who works in theater, Nic Arnzen admits he’s not always up on the latest works. At least, that’s the only explanation he can give for why he had never heard of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi — or the controversy surrounding it — until he actually saw it nine years ago.

"I attended [a production] of the play and wasn’t at all familiar with it," he says. "I probably had heard there were protests in New York and just didn’t investigate it — I tend to avoid drama and conflict. I just walked into a theater and was told a story that overwhelmed me. It is a story about universal love."

That has not been the consensus of most of the play’s critics … who, let’s face it, probably were outraged by its content without actually seeing or reading the full script. (Sound familiar?) Set in McNally’s home state of Texas, it’s a modern retelling of the New Testament where all of the Apostles are gay (two even marry one another) and the relationship between the Judas and Jesus characters is based on sexual jealousy.

For someone who tries to avoid conflict in his life, Arnzen couldn’t have chosen a greater lightning rod to become associated with, as he has toured with a production of the play.

Arnzen’s association started about five years ago, when he was approached by the leaders of the MCC church he and his partner had just joined and asked to direct a play — whatever he wanted. He chose Corpus Christi.

"The sole reason I wanted to tell it was to convey a message of love," he says. "The pastor was aware of the play, but because of the membership of that church he didn’t see it as a problem. I would call him courageous, but he’d be embarrassed by it."

Indeed, nearly half a decade after the initial church run, Arnzen and members of the original cast continue to perform the show all over the country, and even in Great Britain. The performances in Dallas next week follow a controversy that led to a shortened version of the play being banned at Tarleton State University earlier this year, when residents of Stephenville objected to it being staged.

That’s when the Art for Peace & Justice project stepped in, bringing Arnzen’s full version to the Cathedral of Hope. The cast that will be coming here has performed this production of Corpus Christi basically without pay the entire time.

"The heart of the cast remained with the production," says Arnzen. "They are dedicated to doing this show without pay for coming on five years. We have never done anything but commit to cover their housing expenses. They commit themselves to a piece they’re passionate about. They sacrifice over and over for the joy of performing the piece."

James Brandon, the man who plays Joshua (the Jesus role), has been one of the constants over the years, not only for acting but as also a producer and Arnzen’s business partner.

"He and I make this happen — there’s no producing party," Arnzen says. "We’ve had faith in the play and it’s worked for us."

Not that there haven’t been issues among the cast. One female actor "has a strong religious belief, but she has a strong spiritual belief in [the play] as well."

Ultimately, though, the characterization of Jesus and his disciples as gay takes a back seat to the message of love.

Still, Arnzen worries about possible protests in Dallas — which will mark a first for them. "We had not experienced the firestorm [of protests often visited on productions]," he says.

At the same time that the play is being put on, Arnzen and company will be working on a documentary about their play.

"We were on our way to Scotland with the play and talked about traveling cross-country in a tour bus. Then someone said this would be a great reality series because this cast is so funny and odd," he says. The idea eventually morphed into a documentary film, which they hope to do without any major funding.

"We said, ‘We made the play happen, why can’t we make the documentary happen?’" he says. "We found our [director of photography] and are about to release our first trailer." The editing will be done in London with the show and finished by September, hopefully in time to submit a rough cut to Sundance.

Although the play is set in Texas and written by a Texas-born writer, Arnzen’s company has never performed it in the Lone Star State before.

"We’ve been taking a deep breath about bringing this to Texas," he says. "We were writing it off as all conservatives but then learned you have the largest gay church and the largest gay men’s chorus around." That helped curb their concerns — although it  raised others.

"We have had a person walk out once because she thought it was a bad representation of Texas, not because of the way it portrayed [the gay-religious content]," he says. Ultimately, though, Arnzen thinks its message is affirming for gay people of faith and Texas.

"Terrence was really protective of Corpus Christi and Texas," he says. "And I was impressed by the fact a gay man, growing up in a community and religion that [oppressed him], instead of writing a scathing piece wrote a loving piece about it.

It closes a gap between the gay community and religion, letting gays take back religion."                    

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 28, 2010.

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