A new feature documentary called Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption follows a troupe of actors on a five-year journey performing Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi—which notoriously combusted in controversy when it opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998. As inflammatory as the play was, the documentary is surprisingly touching. It’s a film that Corpus Christi’s haters and lovers alike might well be moved by.
McNally had imagined Christ as a queer savior (meaning both a savior who is queer and one who saves queers). This theatrical presumption offended many devout believers in divinely ordained heterosexuality who protested vehemently. Fearing violence, MTC pulled the plug on the show and only later mustered the nerve to reinstate it.
In Corpus Christi the documentary there are only snippets of Corpus Christi the play, which is a good thing. An archival record of a stage performance would not engage us. The script as written would seem an anachronistic contrivance apart from the emotional investment in the material that the presence of live actors provides. Instead the documentary depicts the protests that the traveling production encountered, inserts clips of TV news reports and comedian Jimmy Fallon’s jokes about it, and lets us listen in on some fascinating reflections from the playwright.
McNally says his intention in portraying Jesus as a gay man with gay apostles was to tell the story of Christ’s passion in a way that would feel immediate and authentic. Religion, he says, has “drummed gays out.” McNally wanted instead to depict Jesus’ redemptive ministry and crucifixion in a way that would welcome gays back into the fold.
Thus there is a character in the play named Joshua, who is a boy alter for Jesus and a reluctant redeemer. En route to His acceptance of His divine calling, He and a disciple have sex, He officiates at two disciples’ marriage, and He is betrayed by Judas out of sexual jealousy. (Just like that, the script religiously capitalizes every pronoun for Joshua—an unplayable if conscientious conceit.)
Originally the play was written to be performed by an all-male cast of thirteen, all wearing what the stage directions describe as “the ‘uniform’ of the play: white shirt, khaki trousers and bare feet.” McNally mentions in this documentary that he was inspired by a Gap ad. McNally’s plays have never lacked for homoerotically photogenic young men (think the skinny-dipping scene in Love, Valour, Compassion). Apparently as conceived, Corpus Christi was to have been a Bruce Webber homage.
The cast of the play shown in the documentary is dramatically different, however: It is gender balanced and age and ethnicity inclusive. Some apostles are played by men, some by women. The character of God is played by an older woman. One actor is Jewish. Without coming out and saying so, the production makes palpable the point Paul makes in his epistle to the Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile…neither male nor female.” This diversity of casting contributes enormously to the documentary’s emotional resonance as cinema. And the documentary’s focus more on the players than the play turns out to be a most rewarding reason to watch.
Not unlike a television reality show, Corpus Christi introduces us to individual members of the cast, and we as viewers get to know them in ways that quite transcend what we might get from seeing an ensemble of actors onstage. By turns the actors are each shown talking personally to the camera—disclosing autobiographical details that are sometimes heart-rendingly unfiltered.
By the end of the film’s 78 minutes, what began for this troupe as a theatrical road show has become an emotionally and spiritually life-changing journey—one that far surpasses McNally’s play in credence.
Structurally the documentary is chronologically confusing. The itinerary of the show’s travels is never clear. Talking-head interviews that were all shot in the same place keep popping up no matter what city the troupe is in. Because the documentary jumps around so much, to watch it as a travelog would frustrate.
But the filmmakers did not set out to make that conventional kind of narrative. What they’ve stayed true to instead are the emotional/spiritual throughlines of a diverse troupe of actors who are wrestling with issues in their lives, in the script of the play they are performing, and in the scripture it liberally borrows from. Remarkably the overall effect evokes the transformative force of faith itself.
Trailer for Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption
Guest author John Stoltenberg regularly reviews and writes about theater for DCMetroTheaterArts. He holds an M.Div. in theology and theater from Union Theological Seminary, an M.F.A. in theater from Columbia, and an M.P.S. in communications from Georgetown. A creative-direction and strategic-communications consultant, he is also author of a novel, nonfiction books, and many essays about gender and ethics. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.