Two shows were on display for theatregoers at Manhattan Theatre Club Sept. 22. The one audiences came for was Terrence McNally's controversial new play, Corpus Christi, which had its first preview last night. The second was outside the theatre, where dozens of protesters voiced their opposition to the play, which reportedly features a gay, Jesus-like figure.
When the nature of McNally's drama was revealed last spring, it sparked a firestorm of protest, led by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Fearing violence, MTC cancelled the play in May but quickly reinstated it when McNally, Athol Fugard and other playwrights protested, and when the theatre was sure adequate security could be provided for the production.
Ironically, this first protest of Corpus Christi did not involve the Catholic League but was organized by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal of the Fort Apache section of the Bronx. Father Benedict J. Groeschel termed the gathering a "prayer vigil."
"The papers said our objection to the play is that Jesus is portrayed as gay," Groeschel told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 23). "Our objection is that the play is salacious and blasphemous. Attack the Catholic Church -- fine, we're used to it. But you attack Jesus, attack Mary, then you're attacking our relatives. They crossed the line from the institutional to the personal, they crossed the line from civility and tolerance."
Protesters gathered on the sidewalk opposite Manhattan Theatre Club, while a few stood in front of the theatre doors handing out leaflets which read: "Corpus Christi is a profound insult to hundreds of millions of people who honor the name of Jesus Christ... This play insults the members of every world religion and even people who do not have a formal religion but who believe that there are sacred and transcendent values in this life... We are asking you to consider, this evening, the possibility of leaving the theatre when you hear and see things that you know are profoundly abusive to the sacred values of your neighbors." There were 200 protesters in all, according to a New York City Police Department spokesperson. The only arrest was of one Maia Wojciechowsky, a 71-year-old lady who, carrying two signs, blocked the doors of MTC and screamed at theatregoers. The police arrested her and issued her a summons for disorderly conduct. She was later released.
The NYPD said it had no plans to beef up security at MTC. The theatre has hired Kroll Associates to provide security. Patrons must pass through metal detectors and run their parcels through an X-ray machine, according to the New York Times.
Last night's disturbance won't be MTC's last, either. A Pennsylvanian group called The American TFP (Tradition, Family and Property) is planning a protest on Sat., Sept. 26. A spokesman for the group, which operated out of York, PA, said he expected up to 2,000 people. Also, the Catholic League will stage its protest of Corpus Christi's opening night, Oct. 13. Groeschel said some of the members of his order plan to join the league in their demonstration.
The protests may be intended to keep audiences away, but the reverse has occurred. According to spokesperson Chris Boneau (reached Sept. 23), the entire ten-week run of Corpus Christi has been sold out since Sept. 21. There is currently no talk of extending the piece.
Manhattan Theatre Club hasn't taken any chances as far as safety matters surrounding Corpus Christi are concerned. As reported by the NY Times (Sept. 3), the company has enlisted the services of Kroll Associates, a private investigation and security concern. Kroll is acting as a consultant, advising MTC on security measures surrounding the production. The theatre has also been in constant communication with the New York City Police Department, said the Times.
The precautions are not unwarranted. The Catholic League, which spearheaded a protest against the McNally work, is planning an opening night protest peopled by "busloads" of nuns, priests and average citizens from Long Island, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Also, various denizen of the artistic community, included Tony Kushner and Craig Lucas, are discussing a counter-demonstration, protesting the Catholic League's actions.
A cast of relative unknowns create the 13 roles in Terrence McNally's play, which began rehearsals Aug. 26 and opens Oct. 13. The 13-member ensemble features Sean Dugan, Christopher Fitzgerald, Michael Hall, Michael Irby, Ken Leung, Josh Lucas, Matthew Mabe, Drew McVety, Anson Mount, Jeremy Shamos, Ben Sheaffer, Troy Sostillio and Greg Zola.
MTC is being understandably tight-lipped about the production. In a statement issued to the Times, the theatre said "To protect the privacy of the rehearsal process, and given the nature of controversy surrounding this production, MTC has agreed with McNally and Mantello to let the play speak for itself and not to discuss the production process."
To its subscribers, MTC is offering the opportunity to refund tickets to Corpus, cautioning theatregoers, "If you choose not to attend the play, please return your ticket to the subscription office and do not sell it to a stranger." The company has also set up a special "Corpus Christi Hotline," for inquiries and comments: (212) 642-5929.
Here's the background on Corpus Christi:
MTC restored Corpus Christi to the schedule at a late-afternoon press conference May 28 at City Center, the company's base. The announcement capped a wild week in which MTC responded to death threats by withdrawing Corpus Christi from its schedule. The company subsequently drew fire from an angry theatre community, which accused MTC of censorship and cowardice. "In the face of these accusations, we took steps to further evaluate what has always been the only issue for us: safety and security," said Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director. "Within the last 24 hours, we have been in contact with New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir and his Intelligence Division which have been overwhelmingly supportive in stepping in to aid our endeavors and to give us the reasonable assurances we need to produce this play responsibly and safely."
Earlier in the day May 28 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office issued a statement, reading "Although the mayor doesn't agree with the tone of the play, threats of violence in New York City will not be tolerated."
Grove also read from a statement by playwright Athol Fugard, who said "I have boundless admiration for Lynne Meadow's courage and would be absolutely delighted to bring back my play The Captain's Tiger to the Manhattan Theatre Club." Fugard had responded to the removal of Corpus Christi by withdrawing on May 26 his own play, which had been slated for the company's upcoming season.
A grave Meadows said the theatre had been outraged by accusations from the theatre community that MTC had stooped to censorship. "In our 25-year history, we have never censored a play or turned down a play because of content." She then played a grainy tape of one of the death threats the theatre had received. The scratchy, hoarse voice on the tape said, in part, "This message is for Jew, guilty, homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theatre and burn the place to the ground. Death to Jews worldwide." The man said he spoke for something called the National Security Organization.
Grove would not elaborate on the sort of security measures that might be set up at the Off-Broadway theatre's 55th Street performing space, saying "We cannot nor will not later announce any specific security measures." He added that security was indeed in place during the press conference as well.
Corpus Christi had been slated for a fall production at MTC when a story on the play appeared in the New York Post. The article quoted an unnamed source who had attended a reading of the work and claimed the play featured a gay Jesus-like figure. McNally and MTC were subsequently attacked by The Catholic League, a right-wing religious group, which demanded McNally revise the play. Upon receiving no reply, the league began a campaign to halt government funding of MTC.
After weeks of silence, the theatre suddenly withdrew the play May 22, citing "security" reasons, later revealed to be threats of violence against the theatre and McNally. Far from solving the company's problems, however, the move infuriated the playwriting community. The most dramatic result was South African playwright Athol Fugard's decree that he would withdraw his new play The Captain's Tiger from MTC's 1998-99 roster. Other playwrights also voiced their indignation, among them Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, Marsha Norman, Lanford Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and Larry Kramer. Many signed a petition calling for MTC to restore the play. Since then, other theatres across the country have expressed interest in producing the play.
A Playbill On-Line reader present at an MTC-hosted reading of the play wrote to say, "I just want to drop a line about how disturbed I am by the cancellation of Corpus Christi at the MTC. It is one of Terrence's most beautifully written plays and I find it a shame that those who wish to censor artistic expression will make it impossible for the theatrical community to see this work. I think the overall spirit of this work and my own personal feelings about the piece can be spoken for in this quote from the play: `Maybe other people have told His story better. Other actors. This is our way. If we have offended, so be it. He belongs to us as well as you.' "
The words "Corpus Christi" are Latin for "Body of Christ."
McNally was not present at the May 28 press conference. Meadow said she had spoken with the playwright the night before and that he was "delighted" with the theatre's decision. Neither Grove nor Meadow would comment on the content of the play, saying it was still in progress.
-- By Robert Simonson