THE BASEMENT TAPES

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

The St. Marcus Theatre -- which, it is important to remember, is housed in the basement of St. Marcus United Church of Christ -- is the brainchild of the church's pastor, the Rev. Dickson Beall, who a decade ago had a mild revelation "while driving down the road, thinking of the big basement we never used." St. Marcus, as Beall describes it, is in the "heart of the Benton Park and Lafayette Park." Ten years ago, Beall saw some demographics for the neighborhood, showing "an increasing homosexual population, and the largest proportion of people with AIDS in the city. I realized, that's our parish."

To serve that parish, Beall decided the basement space could become a theater focusing on -- although not exclusively -- gay and lesbian issues. His idea has evolved into a significant success. Even in a space that on its best evenings looks dingy, with a limited stage area that combines an oppressively low ceiling with cumbersome upstage walls and a floor that clunks with every actor's step, the St. Marcus has housed some of St. Louis' most daring and exciting work.

Joan Lipkin and That Uppity Theater Company, the Alternate Currents/Direct Currents (AC/DC) Series, Scott Miller's New Line Theatre and Chris Jackson's CJ Productions have made their homes at the St. Marcus. All of the plays Lipkin has authored over the years, many of which have received international acclaim, began at the St. Marcus. "They would not have happened if I didn't have affordable space," she says. "I had a life as a writer there."

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."

Such renowned, and regaled, performance artists as Tim Miller and Holly Hughes have played at the St. Marcus as part of the AC/DC Series. Scott Miller's work has grown over the years, especially his interpretations of Stephen Sondheim musicals, with critically acclaimed productions of Assassins and Passion discovering a life in the church basement that they didn't find on Broadway. Chris Jackson, unfortunately, is like the less talented Marx brother in this group, the nebbish passing as romantic lead.

The theater has provoked the usual controversies over the last decade. Beall received 12-page letters with quotations from Scripture when Tim Miller first came and bared all on the St. Marcus stage. Lipkin received telephoned bomb threats for one of her plays. "Any gay representation at all takes on mythic proportions in homophobic culture" is Lipkin's stock response to the stock controversies. During the first Tim Miller fracas, she says, she and Beall "began to develop strategies with the congregation on how to deal with controversy."

The St. Marcus Theatre, it seemed, would continue on its tempestuous, uncensored path with the occasional nude-queer blip on the conservative radar. Productions such as Steve Patterson's phenomenal Beauty, in which the performer enacted Jean Genet's vison of love found in degradation, would appear without much regard, except from those who left the theater stunned in a way that conventional theater rarely affects them.

"The St. Marcus has a built-in core audience that will come to something because it is a St. Marcus show," says Scott Miller, "and it is a terribly sophisticated audience." Only a few members of St. Marcus' small congregation see the plays, and when they do, they choose entertainments such as Into the Woods or Camelot. "I don't think the congregation has any idea what's going on in the theater," Miller says.

Does he ever take the people upstairs into consideration? "It's not a programming issue. I'd like it not to be. I don't want to not do a certain show because it might upset people. Assassins is about upsetting people."

But Miller and Lipkin and Jackson may have to consider the congregation whose church basement they use because of a recent "periodic review" of the St. Marcus called by the St. Louis Association of the United Church of Christ, the governing body of the UCC, the generally liberal denomination to which St. Marcus belongs. The Rev. Ivan Horn, a member of the UCC's Church and Ministry Committee and pastor of St. Martin United Church of Christ in Dittmer, Mo., sent a letter to Beall on Aug. 24 calling for the review by the committee of the UCC to discuss the theater. Two letters had arrived, anonymously, at the UCC's governing body, including photocopied clippings of reviews of past St. Marcus productions, all the way back to Hot Dish in 1994. The review that stands out in the stack, however, is Judith Newmark's Post-Dispatch review of last summer's South Beach, a Chris Jackson production that brought a musical rendering to the murder of Gianni Versace. Boldly underlined by the anonymous writer is Newmark's commentary:

"South Beach descends to levels of vulgarity so repellent that they send the rest of the show skidding off its tracks.

"Things happen on this stage that you never thought you would see in a theater, and perhaps never wanted to. Personally, I could have lived without scenes of simulated sex, of dismembered bodies, of people in bondage gear. Yes, there really are clothes as outrageous as these, but you usually don't have to be in the room with them."

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.

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."

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.

"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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