Regional theatres big and small are lining up, hoping to produce Corpus Christi, the Terrence McNally play which was removed from Manhattan Theatre Club's 1998-99 schedule after the theatre received anonymous phone calls threatening the company, its staff and McNally himself.
The threats were sparked by a news report that the play featured a gay, Jesus-like character named Joshua who had sexual relations with his disciples. A further accounting of the plot came from Gerald Freedman, dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts where a student workshop of the play was presented in December. Freedman said the play depicted 13 gay men who perform the story of Jesus among them.
MTC's withdrawal of the play has incurred the ire of much of the theatre community, and regional theatres across the nation have stepped up volunteering to rescue the play. According to a source, a leading contender may be Hartford Stage, whose new artistic director, Michael Wilson, has previously directed McNally's work at Houston's Alley Theatre.
Wilson told Playbill On-Line that his initial impulse upon hearing of the controversy was to do Corpus Christi sight unseen at Hartford. "I left a message with Terrence this morning offering my support," said Wilson, who said that McNally was currently in Florida. "I am interested in doing it. I would want to read it, of course."
Wilson said he had spoken to people familiar with Corpus and stated the play seemed "wildly interesting." "I've worked with Terrence before," he explained. "Tracy Brigden is coming up to Hartford as an artistic associate and she used to be with MTC and so knows Terrence. This is certainly a logical home for [the play]." He expressed some concern about the cost of a production, since the play requires a large cast. However, he would consider a co-production with another theatre. "It's a terrifying turn of events. It's sad for the artistic community and MTC. There are few winners in this situation, including the right wing faction of the country. My dream would be MTC would turn around and put it back in their season. It doesn't look like that's going to happen. I do think the play will be produced, however." There was also interest from the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where McNally's Master Class had a pre-Broadway run. "We would definitely consider doing it," said Producing Artistic Director Sara Garonzik. "I'd have to read it first. But we're interested in anything Terrence is doing." Garonzik said she had actually inquired about Corpus after the play was postponed from MTC's 1997-98 season lineup several months ago. McNally's agent replied at the time, however, that MTC still planned to stage the work.
"I certainly empathize," she said, referring to MTC's reaction to the threats. "It's scary as hell. But bottom line, you can't cave in to this kind of pressure." She added, "I have a feeling he won't have any trouble getting it done. People will line up."
The controversy surrounding Corpus Christi's exile has reached such a pitch across New York City that even Mayor 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."
Christopher Wilson, acting executive director of the Dramatists Guild, of which McNally is vice-president, said he was supportive of McNally but that the Guild had no official statement at this time. 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 on May 21, 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 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 have signed a petition calling for MTC to restore the play.
Sybil Christopher, co-artistic director of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, said she had talked to McNally and that the playwright was "deeply upset -- upset and betrayed." Bay Street has a close relationship with McNally and is this summer producing his new play House, which was co-written with Jon Robin Baitz.
"We'd do the play in a second," continued Christopher, but added that the production's cost would be prohibitive. "If money was no object, we would do it sight unseen."
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."
Other theatres reported to be considering mounting the largely unread play include Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Michael Richie, producer of Williamstown, was en route from New York to Massachusetts and could not be reached.
-- By Robert Simonson