Mark “Colby” Colbert
What if Jesus were just like a kid from a small Texas town who was born with the burden of being the son of God? And, more controversially, what if that kid were gay?
These are the conjectural dramatic questions Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally posed in his hotly debated 1998 play, now revived for a tenth anniversary limited run at the Rattlestick Theater off-Broadway that benefits the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The play begins with an actor prefacing the piece. We’re going to be told a familiar story – the story of the Passion of Christ – only we’ve never heard it quite like this. In introducing the characters, John the Baptist christens the performers, blessing them both as actors and as characters we’ll be witnessing on-stage. It’s a fitting beginning to this fascinating, flawed, and fiercely performed piece of work.
Jesus, we’re soon told to believe, could just as easily have been born in Corpus Christi, Texas rather than Bethlehem. Only, instead of being named Jesus (“This is Texas. It sounds like a Mexican,” father Joseph says of the name), here he’s called Joshua. Joshua is just an ordinary kid at Pontius Pilate Senior High. He’s not particularly interested in sports or girls. And at the senior prom, he can’t bring himself to go all the way with his date Patricia. Instead, he finds himself in the arms of one Judas, here seen as a rebellious classmate whose romantic subplot with Joshua is grossly underwritten.
Once he’s done with school, Joshua is sent a messenger from God in the form of a blind truck driver from whom he hitches a ride. The man, whose blathering causes Joshua to turn on the radio and hear the word of God in the form of a broadcast preacher, proclaims that Joshua is blessed as a healer. In turn, he cures the man’s blindness and thus begins to travel, attracting followers as he moves from place to place, healing as often as he can. When physical healing begins to fail him, moral healing becomes his alternative.
The play, which begins as a sparky, mostly reverent small-town send-up of the Passion story, becomes more muddled as actual scriptural elements are more strictly incorporated (as when a character is referred to as a Centurion without proper contextualization). McNally would have done well to steer the play more toward allegory and less toward literal-mindedness. But what he’s created is, at the very least, thought-provoking and well-meaning.
What’s most impressive about this particular production is the cohesive company director Nic Arnzen has assembled. Each actor gets his or her moments to shine, most covering numerous gender-bending roles (the original Manhattan Theatre Club production featured only men). Elizabeth Cava is gruff and commanding as Father McMullen and, later, the high priest. Nic Arnzen is instantly likable as Simon Peter, the fish-monger. Most importantly, in the central role of Joshua, James Brandon grounds the cast with his boyish good looks and solid stage presence.
By the end of the play, an audience is forced to look at their perceptions of sacrifice and suffering in new and different ways. That’s the beauty of this company’s simple, presentational interpretation of this needlessly controversial play. In watching this fine group of actors take on the various roles in the Passion, we’re forced to examine the roles each of us plays on a daily basis.
In this way, the story of Christ is made personal to each of us. When the play is done, the actors tell us so, pick up their bags, and exit. No bows are necessary; the actors are one with the audience. Before they go, they bring on the ghostlight that sat center stage before the actors began their tale, reminding us of the endurance of this story over time. It’s a fitting way to end the play, especially as interpreted by this bright, buoyant cast.