Evolution’s Delightful, Big-Hearted Corpus Christi
Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi sparked protests upon its premiere in the late ‘90s. In Evolution Theatre Company’s (in association with CATCO) new production directed by Joe Bishara, the sweetness of the material, the empathy for its characters, and the play’s mostly successful extension of what A. E. Houseman called Milton’s mission “to justify God’s ways to man” all shine brightly.
Corpus Christi transplants the story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus – with a couple of exceptions called Joshua (Andrew Protopapas) in a nod to the conflation of names in the original Hebrew and Aramaic – to McNally’s adolescent home of Corpus Christi, Texas. This transplant both takes on the elements of a passion play-by-way-of-Andy-Hardy and tackles the context of contemporary Texas anachronistically (or maybe not) besieged by Pharisees. Thirteen men play all roles, principally Jesus and his apostles but slipping into supporting characters.
The moving opening features John the Baptist (Davion Brown) baptizing the actors and giving them their characters’ names while saying, “I adore you and I recognize your divinity as a human being.” This scene intertwines empathy, understanding what’s right or what’s righteous in ourselves and others, with an implicit belief in a divine power and threads that combination through a sense of “Let’s all put on a show in an old barn with our friends” that’s at the core of all theatre. Bishara’s masterful balancing of those elements makes this production so moving.
The thirteen actors shine here. There isn’t a bad performance to be found, but I’d like to highlight a couple of moments I found exceptional. David Vargo’s Matthew in a few short scenes convinces us his character would give everything he’d worked for up and redirect his practice of law in the service of Protopapas’ Joshua. James Harper’s Peter has the task of reminding us all how close we are to betraying everything we care about at all times and how easy it is to renounce what we love when the pressure’s on. The understanding in Protopapas’ eyes when he looks at Harper and says “Simon Peter, you will betray me three times,” and Harper’s too-loud protesting are electric. Jim Azelvandre takes James the Less in a funny, knowing direction and brings an entirely different, authoritatively winking voice to the voice of God appearing to Joshua.
Protopapas wisely hangs humility in the air as his Joshua’s north star. His charisma and his doubts both come from a desire to do right by other people and the world. His portrayal has a sweetness and a wonder that never reads as stupid or naive. JT Walker’s Judas has a natural, oily charm in spades but Walker understands the rainbow of colors in that oil slick. His dynamic with Joshua is funny and playful. With few, controlled, expressions, Walker hints at the cracks in that facade and the pain behind his betrayal without ever trying to downplay the evil of what he’s done.
Bishara takes thirteen of the strongest actors in town and turns them loose on material that could, in lesser hands, feel coarse, too easy or cheap. The symbiosis between actors and director of tight control and letting a moment breathe makes this charming play soar. It might require a taste for the irreverent, but its heart is what puts it over the edge.
Corpus Christi runs through May 13 with shows at 8:00 pm Thursday through Saturday as well as 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, May 7. For tickets and more info, visit evolutiontheatre.org.