THE BASEMENT TAPES

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

Earnestness is always important, but it rarely produces good art. Yet there are always artists who are attracted to doing good works more than doing good work. Jim Danek is the local producer of Corpus Christi with his Stage Company, an occasional theater enterprise that does a show every three years or so. Danek, who also runs the long-running dinner theater the Royal Dumpe, says of Corpus Christi, "It's a play that should be done. McNally's a good writer. It's a good play by a great American playwright. I'm not sure it's a great play; it's a good play. It's just another point of view, another take on an old story."

Danek hired F. Reed Brown, artistic director of the Ozark Actors' Theater, to direct the good-if-not-great Corpus Christi. Taking time for an interview an hour before rehearsal at the St. Marcus one evening, Reed makes an appeal for tolerance: "I know there are a large number of people who disagree with this piece's message and approach. I respect their choice to not accept it. I realize there are a large number of people who want to see this story told this way. I respect anybody's opinion to agree to disagree. I do know there's a large audience excited that this piece is being done here."

Reed believes Corpus Christi should be done because "someone wants to hear it. I'm doing this because it's a story and an approach that really, really needs to be done. All involved with the decision to do this agreed not to do it as a political statement but to do it because it's a really good play.

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."

"Even if it only speaks to a handful of people, I hope that handful of people are enriched and may examine "How do I live my life? How do I treat my neighbor? Do I find divinity in others?' All the controversy comes down to the "other' -- whatever the other is. I feel Christianity should be all-inclusive. I hope it speaks to people and they examine that."

Reed's earnestness is such that another critic's response to the play comes to mind: "It would be impossible to take the play as seriously as it takes itself."

On the first day of Advent, about 20 members of the congregation are present for Sunday service at St. Marcus Church. It is an aging congregation -- most are retirees making do on pensions and Social Security.

Although the exterior of the building is an unappealing dark brick, the interior of the church is handsome, with large stained-glass windows on the east and west sides of the building depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

Hymns are sung, announcements are made. The theater downstairs may present a spectacle or two, but the religious drama upstairs is low church. Beall, as pastor, is as affable as a talk-show host.

His sermon this morning is convoluted, beginning with a tip on a movie to go see, David Lynch's The Straight Story. Before long, Beall is elucidating the misguided notions of New Age theology, particularly those espoused by Shirley MacLaine, whom Beall apparently has taken to task on other occasions from the St. Marcus pulpit. A little while later he's quoting Dostoevsky.

A look around the congregation does not expose a heretical clique of New Agers, copies of Out on a Limb hidden under the hymnals.

Afterward there is an invitation to coffee and cake in the rectory. When opinions of the theater are asked for, a mixture of ambivalence and anxiety is shared. The gay themes of the theater are not a problem with anyone, although one man says he would appreciate a disclaimer on the Corpus Christi program stating that St. Marcus Church does not believe Christ was gay.

Lorraine Ura, who serves on the church board with her husband, Al, believes there should be more discussion with the theater groups about the choice of scripts. "We're not prudes," she says, but she does have trouble with the profanity and nudity in the church. St. Marcus is in the process of renewal, she and others observe, and they don't need any more bad publicity.

Phyllis Krietemeyer is seated with her granddaughter. Krietemeyer has seen nearly every St. Marcus production in recent years, because she is the one who sells the preshow and intermission refreshments. She remembers a scene in Party where a character was made to do jumping jacks naked on the stage. She's not too sure what that had to do with anything. "Some of it was pretty raw," she says of what she's seen onstage, but she also appreciates those who come to the theater. She likes the "gay fellas." Everybody is very nice; she's never seen a single fight or argument. People remember her and give her hugs. She likes Joan Lipkin's plays.

The high ideals of First Amendment rights and the theological arguments of Reinhold Niebuhr quickly become dull abstractions when sharing coffee and cake with people who love their church and want it to last beyond their years. Beall correctly calls the issue of profanity and nudity in the church basement a real-estate concern. And the possessors of that real estate are the congregation members. It is their church, and after 10 years of "anything goes" -- from the arguably brilliant Beauty to the unarguably gratuitous South Beach -- they'd like a little more say about what goes on there. One could find many points on which to disagree with this, especially while sitting far away on the 20th floor in Clayton, for example, but in this homely, warm, welcoming place -- the Lord's house, to those who love it and care for it -- the integrity of that place deserves consideration.

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