Controversy has dogged "Corpus Christi" since 1989, when it almost didn't open at the Manhattan Theatre Club after bomb threats. That and subsequent flaps over Terrence McNally's gay Passion play miss its basic devotion to the tenets of its subject. In director Nic Arnzen's heartfelt take at the Zephyr Theatre, a multiracial, gender-bent ensemble led by the affecting James Brandon lands its core message past tonal inequities.
Transplanted from the Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, "Corpus Christi" uses ritual elements to bring the Gospels into same-sex idiom. As the audience settles in, actors amble onstage, hauling platforms and hanging Christmas lights.
McNally begins his retelling with a baptismal prologue in which each player receives his or her role from John the Baptist (Suzanne Santos). Though patently sincere, this extended sequence flirts with precocity. But once only two men remain in line, the ambience becomes electric. Smoldering, sensual Judas (an admirable Austen Rey) perceives that he isn't the Messiah, leaving sensitive Joshua (Brandon) to follow that destiny through James Dean-era Texas.
Brandon avoids saintly attitudes as Joshua, radiating an inner spontaneity that ignites against Rey's understated Judas. Their 11 committed colleagues slip in and out of direct address and multiple roles without ego, a true group performance.
Kitsch and catharsis sometimes collide. Not all of McNally's spiky analogies and cheeky narrations hold. Nonetheless, there is only honest intent here, and Arnzen deftly controls the spatial shifts and diverse moods, capably assisted by lighting designer Vic Delco.
"Corpus Christi" is neither blasphemous nor miraculous, but it is theatrically apt and spiritually yearning, for all its quirks. Protesters, what would Jesus do?
-- David C. Nichols
"Corpus Christi," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A. 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Sept. 16. Adult audiences. $20. (323) 852-9111 or www.mccinthevalley.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Just who needs protection here?
Should the performers become unruly, theatergoers needn't worry about bodily harm; they've been fenced apart from the asylum inmates who will enact tonight's play.
This unusual precaution is but one clever detail in a revival of the mid-1960s drama "Marat/Sade," being presented in Los Angeles. The performers appear much too young to have been around when this play -- written by a German, Peter Weiss, about French historical figures -- was made famous by British director Peter Brook. They understand, nevertheless, how to make the piece speak powerfully.
Set in 1808 post-Revolution France, the piece takes place in an insane asylum where the outspoken Marquis de Sade has been locked away as a threat to the public good. There, he presents a play using fellow inmates as actors.
Robert Baker's Sade smiles surreptitiously as the inmates, stirred by their participation in the play, slip ever closer to a bloody French Revolution of their own. Babar Peerzada is especially riveting as a straitjacketed inmate who calmly yet forcefully lists the conditions that must be met if society is ever to be truly just.
Joshua Charney has written new melodies -- resembling folk songs and worker anthems -- for the story's musical portions. Director Patrick J. Adams, who also designed the set, delivers vivid images throughout, while shifting among Brechtian distancing effects, Artaud-like theater of cruelty and crystallizing moments of utter truth. Some scenes seem too slick for this purposely raw story, and Adams and his performers seem skittish about depicting the story's extremes of sexuality and brutality.
Still, this presentation, by Blue House Theater Company and Big Mama Farm Productions, gets its audience thinking. Manipulation of public passion is a big theme, as is the Pandora's box of violence. And then there's that fence, which may not be any safeguard at all, since the real threat is posed not by the inmates but by the seemingly sane population at large.
-- Daryl H. Miller
"Marat/Sade," Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 24. $15. (866) 219-4944. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.