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San Pedro's production of Corpus Christi sings with passion

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Mark McCarver and Jonathan Itchon hold hands in San Pedro Playhouse’s Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi

$15-$25 (No one under age 18 admitted.)
8pm Fri-Sat, 2:30pm matinee Sun
Special Thursday performances: 8pm June 30 & July 7
Cellar Theater @ San Pedro Playhouse
800 West Ashby
(210) 733-7258
Through July 10

Better pray for your sins
Better pray for your sins
’Cause the gay messiah’s coming
— Rufus Wainwright, “Gay Messiah”

Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi has created controversy wherever it is performed for its depiction of a homosexual Christ-like figure that participates in a gay marriage. I saw the original production at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998. The audience had to pass through a throng of protesters and metal detectors due to bomb threats.

Thirteen years later, local religious activists petitioned the San Pedro Playhouse to cancel its production. The Playhouse bravely stood its ground. On opening night, a rather civil group of protesters carried placards and sang hymns near the theater.

Inside the Cellar Theater, a group of actors reenact Jesus’ life journey as a homosexual Passion Play loosely based on the playwright’s own growing up gay in 1950s Texas.

The play opens on a Corpus Christi beach. As the players enter — barefoot onto a sand floor — one informs us: “We are going to tell you an old and familiar story. There’s no suspense and fewer surprises. There are no tricks up our sleeves. No malice in our hearts.”

Each actor is baptized and assigned both a contemporary role (a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a hairdresser, a hustler, etc.) and that of a biblical disciple. This superb company of 13 male, female, and transsexual actors of color rings true and natural for a play set in South Texas.

This is also a star-crossed love story between two gay young men, Joshua and Judas.

When the teenage Judas (Mark McCarver) meets Joshua (Jonathan Itchon) at the senior prom (think West Side Story), the lights dim and the star-crossed lovers only have eyes for each other. We never learn if Josh and Jude get it on. But they do paint “J&J4VR” on the water tower.

Judas is the one who tells it like it is: “You ever play the other side of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’?” Joshua shakes his head no. “That’s the difference between us — curiosity.”

Expecting a solemn recounting leading up to its tragic conclusion? Not to worry. The humor is entertaining and the risqué language is never blasphemous. McNally also effectively uses theatre and movie references — from South Pacific, James Dean, Massenet opera to Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe, and Bo Diddley.

There is also a dark side — a hint at the then-unknown AIDS epidemic to come. Bartholomew (Gloria Sanchez) the physician pleads with Joshua: “We don’t need messiahs. We need cures.”

This play isn’t agitprop, but about ritual and limpias. Its New Testament message speaks to the divinity within us. For some, attending the performance is like going to church, a religious experience, a meditation, an exegesis, or an exorcism.

Weeks after Corpus opened in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming was murdered. The intensity and the reminder of such senseless death may cause you to weep, but McNally urges us “to learn.” And to not let it happen again.

Director Greg Hinojosa brings a profound sensitivity to Corpus Christi. Ditto the extraordinary design team and cast he has assembled. According to McNally, the original NYC production “may well be the definite one,” but I would urge him to reconsider. For the San Pedro Playhouse has honored his work with a magnificent production that rings with veracity and sings with passion. •

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