Ulysses Theatre Company
at Bailiwick Repertory
Terrence McNally’s recasting of Jesus and the disciples as sexually active gay men in Texas caused a firestorm when it was announced for the 1998 season of the Manhattan Theatre Club. First the nutcase brigade of the far Christian right launched death threats against the board of the theater. And when the theater pulled the play from its schedule, writers like Tony Kushner got into the act, threatening not to allow their work to be produced there anymore. MTC relented and the show went on.
The upshot of the reviews of that first production was that there’d been much ado about not much of anything. McNally’s play was summarized as an almost chaste (and not terribly interesting) parable on tolerance and the importance of finding the divine in everyone. The play even opens with a prologue pleading its case: “We have no tricks up our sleeves, no malice in our hearts.”
Except toward women. What I’ve never seen addressed in any discussion of this play (which has had many productions nationwide since the New York City uproar) is the overwhelming gynophobia of McNally’s script (all the parts are written for men). Sadly, that dismissive, insulting attitude is very present in this Bailiwick Repertory Pride Series production featuring Ulysses Theatre Company members under the direction of Stephen Rader.
In the world of Joshua (the moniker of McNally’s new Jesus), Mary is an indifferent mother who at the behest of Joseph leaves her divine little newborn to go two-stepping with the stepdad. (Joseph’s brutish insistence that Mary go dancing with him right after she gives birth comes out of nowhere–just moments before he had been promising to love the tyke as he would his own son.) The girls at Pontius Pilate High (we’re in Christopher Durang territory here, minus Durang’s outrageous wit) are either shallow prick teases or pathetically ugly girls desperate to get laid. The nuns are objects of campy mirth, and the asexual, sympathetic English teacher who plays chess with Joshua and encourages his love of Shakespeare admits later that she can’t remember him.
Nowhere in his subsequent travels with his gang of merry men (all of them white in this production, by the way) do we see Joshua interacting with women–except for the wailing females who surround the dead Lazarus, and their grieving is mocked by the disciples. Given that Christ’s relationship with women like Mary Magdalene is one of the most beautiful aspects of the New Testament (most earlier prophets refused to preach to women at all, let alone prostitutes), that’s troubling. To say the least. To say the most, it’s the same kind of selective and intellectually dishonest reading of scripture to suit a political agenda that McNally’s play protests on behalf of gay men stereotyped dismissively by pseudo-Christians. Here, Magdalene is just mentioned in passing during the Crucifixion scene. There are no women at the cross when Joshua dies. Most disturbingly, this scene is played out in front of a scrim, behind which looms the shadow of a nun rapping a little girl’s knuckles with a ruler for chewing gum.
With that one juxtaposition, McNally manages to belittle the horrible suffering of Christ on the cross by equating it with 1950s-style parochial school punishment, and the role of women in the church by suggesting that they are the true oppressors rather than being another group that has been sinned against by the church fathers. (At least gay men can stay in the closet and be ordained. No woman can ever “pass” into the halls of ecclesiastical power.) The inherent offensiveness of this image trumps a line from earlier in the show: as the disciples/actors begin gathering up the props for their passion play, one of them walks across the stage with a rubber fish and says (I wish I were making this up), “A fish. Pee yew!”
Earlier reviewers were right to point out the warm and fuzzy quality of Joshua’s relationship with his disciples. As written by McNally and played by Randy Goetz, Joshua is clean-cut and self-effacing rather than the oversexed queen the protesters seemed to fear. There is no nudity here. The actors are sitting onstage chatting as the audience files in. They strip down to their underwear, are called by their real names to be baptized as their characters (the disciples have jobs that run the gamut from lawyer to teacher to hustler), and then don identical khakis and white shirts (the gospel according to Gap) in order to begin the story. We see very little simulated onstage sex–the disciples have, we learn at the Last Supper, all “lain” with Joshua, but the relationships depicted are more like the cuddling of puppies than an orgiastic frenzy. The sole exception is Joshua’s relationship with the treacherous Judas (Patrick Rybarczyk). In another departure from the New Testament, it’s not John that Joshua loves best. He goes for the bad boy and it costs him his life.
Given the thinness of the material, the 13 cast members do their best to keep this two-hour, intermissionless sermon-as-story on track. Goetz manages to deliver Joshua’s homilies without self-dramatizing (though I wondered why he’s the only one in his titular hometown who doesn’t have a twang). Rus Rainear as Thaddeus (“I’m a hairdresser. Does anyone have a problem with that?”) is a sly charmer who avoids the screamer stereotypes built into the part. Michael Pacas as Bartholomew, a doctor torn between his love of Joshua and his skepticism about the latter’s healing powers, adds an air of stolid sternness to the gambolings of the disciples. (Their adventures seem like one long circuit party minus the bare-backing, and with time out for the occasional miracle.)
Rader keeps the action moving briskly, and Tom Bursch’s set and Eric Appleton’s lighting are clean and simple. As the action unfolds, the disciples attach pieces of canvas to the scrim at the rear of the playing area, and by play’s end these form the stark image of a hand pierced by a spike.
McNally’s original detractors missed the point of this play entirely. His Joshua’s message isn’t threatening to the established order. It’s “All men are divine.” Especially all gay white men, the men most like McNally himself. All women are either invisible or insipid. We’ll have to wait for someone else to come up with a really radical reinvention of the New Testament. Paging Mary Daly.