Controversial ‘retelling’ of gospel story in Corpus Christi

Ignition Theatre’s final production, Corpus Christi, is the kind of show audiences will either think highly of and be passionate about or stay away from in droves.

The play, written by Terrence McNally, runs June 14-16 at City Centre Stage. Curtain is 7:30 p.m.

The reason for its polarizing nature? The story – which has its impactful and sincere moments – melds the story of Jesus with homosexual themes which surround another character in another time as well.

But Corpus Christi, as director Matt Grue has pointed out, isn’t trying to rewrite history and suggest that Jesus Christ was gay. The story follows a man by the name of Joshua (Shane Gramlich) who is gay and lives in 1950s Corpus Christi, Texas. Because of his lifestyle, he is shunned and leaves his hometown, forming a group of ‘disciples’ and responding to a divine calling he feels is on his life.

His message meets with opposition, though. He encounters enemies including a nasty priest and nun (indicating that McNally has issues with the Roman Catholic Church). And that’s the sense that emerges as the play moves along – McNally has a sympathetic view of Jesus and he is aiming to identify with Jesus’ message of love, forgiveness and redemption. Joshua reaches out to people, he heals and restores many, he affirms people, he performs miracles, but his message doesn’t agree with the powers that be and he is put to death.

As a Christian myself, the idea of taking the story of Jesus and introducing extra-biblical elements to it of any kind never sits well with me. I hold the story as sacred and find myself cringing when stories about ‘Christ figures’ are told with elements injected in. Obviously, I ‘get’ what McNally is doing with this play. I understand it, and it reminded me of a comment Grue made to me a few weeks ago – some feel the gospel story is off limits to any kind of reinterpretation when it comes to productions. Others don’t feel that way at all. And that is another ‘dividing’ line when it comes to who will want to see this play as well.

But what did surprise me with Corpus Christi, however, was how much of the Biblical story was woven into the script. Scriptures were often quoted accurately. And that’s what has likely led to confusion about the production – those who do see it can’t help but be struck by the portrayal of Joshua as a very ‘real’ person with real emotions. He laughs. He gets angry, fearful, doubtful. I believe the ‘humanness’ of Christ is often lost in Christian circles today – people tend to see him as a remote, inaccessible and sometimes even a stern figure. But judging how the people responded to Jesus in the gospels, he was clearly a fascinating and engaging person to be with. He graciously saw through facades to the ‘real’ often hurting person underneath.

Ultimately, how any one responds to Corpus Christi will depend on a number of things. It depends on how a person sees Jesus. It depends on one’s view of homosexuality. And it depends on whether you feel the story of Jesus can be used as something of a literary device for other messages.

The weakness of Corpus Christi is that it tries to be too much – it feels like there are a couple of stories here being told. Tradition and modernity clash, then they mesh together, then they are separate. Then they blur. Is this Jesus or is this Joshua? Or both? The play is described as being about a Christ figure, but the story of Jesus is directly a part of the play. For those raised in the church, that ‘melding’ may just be too much to bear.

There are also moments that don’t seem to serve much purpose other than trying to shock us – unnecessary bursts of profanity and a couple of abrupt, background sex scenes for example.

As to the acting, there is scarcely anything to complain about. Gramlich was terrific in the title role, as was Alexi Pedenault as Judas who ultimately betrays him to a gruesome death. Paul Boultbee is also very solid and his versatility shines through in his multiple roles.

Jillian Tallas also deserves mention in her portrayals as both Peter and Mary; Erin Odell bring her tremendous talents to her many roles as well.

The play carries a discretionary warning for coarse language and mature themes.

Tickets are are available at Ticket Central (4922 49th St.) They can also be purchased by phone at 403-347-0800 or at