Visiting the people under the stairs at the St. Marcus Theatre

Newmark's personal view of what's appropriate attire being beside the point, such goings-on seem a bit much for a church basement, at least in the minds of the Church and Ministry Committee.

Beall shares his thoughts on the periodic review in his 20th-floor apartment in Clayton's Park Tower. He could not talk the week before because of a trip to Rome, which included a hike in the Cinqueterra region, along the Mediterranean.

Beall looks the part of the liberal minister -- fit, trim, dressed in a black T-shirt and faded black jeans. His hair is thinning and gray, and he wears glasses with round gold frames. Response to recent productions "started the ball rolling" Beall believes -- productions such as South Beach and Scott Miller's Head Games, which, according to writer/director Miller, "was hard for church people to understand what it was about: gratuitous nudity making fun of gratuitous nudity." There was Miller's production of Party in the spring, described by the RFT's Mike Isaacson as "a comedy about six gay men who eventually all get naked" -- a production that wiped away a New Line financial deficit.

A rehearsal of Corpus Christi at the St. Marcus Theatre, a play that, according to one critic, "relates to a little-known episode in the history of Texas when the state was occupied by ancient Rome."
Jennifer Silverberg
A rehearsal of Corpus Christi at the St. Marcus Theatre, a play that, according to one critic, "relates to a little-known episode in the history of Texas when the state was occupied by ancient Rome."

Beall summarizes the complaints: "The gist of it was this was the house of the Lord -- a real-estate approach. This production is happening on the real estate of the Lord."

Beall believes the letters came from a member of the right wing of the UCC (yes, there is such a thing), which refers to itself as the Biblical Witness Fellowship. "Those Biblical Witness folks are seen as a pesky little gathering," Beall says. "They're extremists." Then he immediately qualifies the assertion: "They probably think I'm the extremist."

Yet that "pesky little gathering" had raised the alarm of the moderate members of the church, so on Sept. 2 Beall and members of the St. Marcus congregation appeared before the 12-member Church and Ministry Committee, comprising six pastors and six laity, at Eden United Church of Christ in Affton.

Beall describes the encounter as "tense" but believes he defended the theater on strong theological grounds. "I believe, theologically, the whole problem was worked out 50 years ago by Reinhold Niebuhr. He put the nail in the coffin of this narrow thinking of sin as sexuality. It's so easy to think of sex as sin -- that isn't sin. Sin is rebelliousness, pride and self-interest.

"End of story. You can expand on that forever, but that takes care of it."

The Rev. Horn, however, came away from the periodic review with a different notion. Horn is not of the Biblical Witness wing of the church -- far from it. "I always affirm and appreciate the words "open' and "liberal,'" he says, ""liberal' meaning we're open and loving and giving and not judgmental. Yes, there are things we are judgmental on: war and killing, dishonesty and injustice -- those things we are condemning of but not in these other areas, such as acceptance of all of God's people."

Horn tries to temper any notion of the periodic review as being some sort of church tribunal. "This was more of "Where are you? What's your sense of mission as a group? Who is involved in the decision-making, especially the decision-making of various plays that are presented?' It was out of that context that we came together and conversed then with some members of St. Marcus church along with Dickson, the pastor.

"It was a very good discussion and, I think, a discussion whereby we and they and all of us together felt and concluded some of those types of presentations were not at all acceptable within the setting of a church group or a church property and setting. They would certainly have to screen and monitor that much, much closer than they had in the past."

This monitoring isn't happening right away, however; when Beall is asked about the upcoming production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi -- which runs Dec. 9-18 -- he admits he hasn't read it. When he's told that the play is the retelling of the story of Christ as if the Christ figure grew up gay in Corpus Christi, Texas, attracted 12 gay disciples, had an affair with Judas and eventually was crucified as "King of the Queers," Beall responds, "Who in the hell cares?"

Somebody always does. When Corpus Christi was first to premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City, the management canceled the production because of bomb threats, then responded to criticisms of cowardice by giving the play its scheduled run, with the audience crossing into the theater through metal detectors.

Subsequent productions in Denver, Houston and Los Angeles have drawn protests, and the most recent production, in London, resulted in a Muslim cleric's calling for a fatwa on playwright McNally. Christ is considered a messenger of God in Islam, and cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed has called for McNally's execution if he ever sets foot "on a Muslim nation's soil."

If only fundamentalists, be they of the Muslim or the Biblical Witness variety, would leave the executions to the critics, for they've done some imaginative slaying of McNally and Corpus Christi. Ben Brantley of the New York Times quipped of the Manhattan Theater Club premiere: "The excitement stops right after the metal detectors." Vincent Canby, also of the Times, wrote that "the entire production had the teeth-grinding earnestness of an amateur theatrical put on by a neighborhood encounter group.... The Passion of Jesus has all the mystery of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs put on by a bunch of fellows who appear to shop at the Gap." The New York Daily News noted that "the cranks and bigots who can condemn Terrence McNally's controversial "gay Jesus' play without having seen it don't realize how lucky they are." Irving Wardle of the London Daily Telegraph was curious about the setting of the play: "Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi relates to a little-known episode in the history of Texas when the state was occupied by ancient Rome." Wardle goes on to address the notion that Corpus Christi is, essentially, a passion play: "But passion plays are addressed to the whole community, not to civil-rights pressure groups. Given the ugly gay-bashing street demo on the first night and the ensuing homicidally farcical fatwa, I would have liked to greet this event with a cheer. All I can say (with acknowledgments to the critic John Whiting) is that the show's heart is in the right place, but one is worried by its little tiny head."

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