The Wayward Artist Brings a Heartfelt, Universal Corpus Christi to Grand Central Arts Center

Corpus Christi. Photo by Joardan Kubat

In 1999, the average rent in Orange County was about half of what it is today: $2,157. It had been only 11 years since the Dodgers had won a World Series. Donald Trump was just another multimillionaire (maybe) loudmouth jerk-off.

And some 14 years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions across our progressive republic, some people could still get a bit upset at the notion of the Son of God being a cocksucker.

That’s an actual line from Terrence McNally’s 1998 play Corpus Christi, an anachronistic, time-bending passion play documenting the life and death of Joseph, a young gay man from Corpus Christi, Texas, who gains 12 male adherents, also gay, and speaks of love and human dignity and gets hung on a cross. When it was first produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club, condemnation of the play, including threats to firebomb the theater and kill the playwright and staff, forced the theater to cancel it, only to later reinstate it after adding metal detectors to the entrances.

On Oct. 12, 1999, the last night of previews, across the country in Wyoming, another young gay man, this one real, was murdered and strung across a barbed wire fence. The ghastly timing of a protested, picketed, gay-oriented play along with Matthew Shepard’s death led The New York Times’ Mark Blankenship to write that the events were “stark reminders of lingering homophobia.”

The next year, the play hit Orange County, courtesy of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., an outfit that never shied away from rattling cages. Concerns about protests and picketers led the Santa Ana Police Department and the FBI to contact the theater about possibly shutting it down, but the company said no thanks. Other than your garden-variety death and bomb threats, nothing but a couple of obligatory anti-gay protesters surfaced during the run. Since then, there have been a handful of productions in OC and Long Beach, but excluding a 2008 production at Chapman University that was canceled because 14 student groups got their collective panties twisted, the productions have come, played and gone.

As, it seems, will the current production on the boards of OC’s newest theater company, the Wayward Artist. Other than a couple of bigoted comments on Wayward Artist’s Facebook page, director Craig Tyrl reports no incidents. Which is as it should be. Sure, nothing gets the blood pumping of any self-respecting media outlet than the prospect of protests and death threats and controversy (hell, this one turned the 1999 Santa Ana production into a cover story and has just spent half the space of this review talking about them!), but let’s get real: The play’s the thing, and all that really matters is what happens onstage and what the people in the seats get from it.

Which, based on this production, isn’t much, if “isn’t much” means an earnest, sincere reminder that while love is in the heart, loins and eye of the beholder, that beholder has as much right to feel it as anyone else.

Remove the Bible-thumping sanctimonious outrage, as well as any attempts to try to play to that outrage or backlash to it, as some early productions may have done, and you get a play that is about as provocative and militant as a cream puff war. But that’s okay. Yes, Corpus Christi still feels as if it’s an idea better in concept than execution: It’s a bit forced, a bit dorky, a bit too much “hey, let’s piss some people off by writing a play about a gay Jesus!” But when one isn’t sitting there waiting for that outrage to pay off in fist-pumping gay manifesto or evisceration of Christianity, the play reveals itself as far less political than personal and, strangely, universal.

Tyrl and his wholly engaging and committed 13-person ensemble (paced by Eric Flores’ equally strong and na•ïve Joseph and Daniel Botello’s good-ol’-Texas-pickup-driving-boy-with-currents-that-run-way-deep Judas) tell this familiar-with-a-mighty-big-spin tale, filled with fourth-wall-breaking asides and comic bits, as a deeply felt and moving love story, not between Joseph and his disciples, but between Joseph and everyone he encounters. Yes, he and his disciples are persecuted for being gay, and anyone who doesn’t think homophobia, not to mention bigotry of all kinds, isn’t an issue today probably only uses the internet for porn.And yes, the harrowing final image of a bleeding gay man killed for preaching a revolutionary gospel is less than cheerful. But while those elements seemed to dominate the play in early productions, they take the back seat in this heartfelt show, which instead focuses on sincerely and passionately delivering the message that God most loves us when we love one another—whatever that God and that love and that other look like.

Sure, that idea doesn’t make for click-bait-y headlines, and no one’s going to get a medal for loving any time soon. But considering the United States of Collective Outrage circa 2018, maybe more love and her cousins tolerance and shut-the-fuck-up-and-just-live-and-let-live are the only ones for which battles are truly worth waging.

Corpus Christi at Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 205-6273; www.thewaywardartist.org. Thurs.-Fri., Nov. 15-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $15-$25.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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