"Corpus Christi" in Santa Ana; Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company nabs debut of McNally play.

For the second year in a row, an up-and-coming Orange County theatre organization has scooped other Southland groups by securing the West Coast premiere rights to an important Terrence McNally play with a spiritual theme. Last year, the Rude Guerrilla Company in Santa Ana offered a production of McNally's mystical drama The Perfect Ganesh, preceding the Odyssey Theatre's rendition by several months. Now, in an even more noteworthy coup, the Guerrillas are preparing the local debut of McNally's highly controversial Corpus Christi, a hot-potato 1998 play centering around a gay Christ.

In a recent phone interview, Guerrilla artistic director Dave Barton chuckled when he explained to Back Stage West that securing the rights from Dramatists Play Service was uncannily easy.

"My personal feeling is that many people were afraid to touch it," Barton indicated. He might have a point. When the play was scheduled to premiere last year at Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club, the theatre announced plans to cancel the production after religious-right fanatics threatened to bomb the theatre and murder the management. But an influential group of theatre figures, including such notables as playwright Athol Fugard, threatened to retaliate by organizing an artistic community boycott. Under fire from all directions, the MTC eventually relented, and the production proceeded-with the aid of police officers, security guards, metal detectors, and guard dogs.

It seems especially bold to offer this play in ultra-conservative Orange County, and the backlash has already begun.

"The neighborhood where our theatre is located is surrounded by Catholics," said Barton. "We have already been tipped off that picketing is planned. We have had discussions with city officials, and will likely confer with the police chief. When our audition notice was published in Back Stage West in September, we received a hate letter via e-mail warning us not to produce this play about blasphemy and faggots. Also, our usual printer has informed us he will not print our programs."

Ironically, most critics described the New York premiere production as far tamer than what they had expected.

"This play is an interesting departure for us, in a sense," said Barton. "We are dedicated to presenting provocative fare, and past productions have included a lot of sex and violence. This play is pro-faith and very humanistic. Like other McNally plays, it is rife with social conscience, and is actually a companion piece to A Perfect Ganesh. It has moments of great beauty and forgiveness. The character of Joshua/Jesus says, "God loves us best when we love each other,' which is essentially the theme of the play."

Barton spoke of two powerful scenes-a crucifixion and a scene in which Joshua/Jesus is making out with a girl and walks onto a beach to find 12 men kissing. The play calls for each of 12 male actors-aside from the actor playing Joshua/Jesus-to play themselves, apostles, and multiple other characters. The play is set in Corpus Christi, Texas, but the time period is tenuous to accentuate the universality of McNally's themes.

The two-year-old non-Equity Rude Guerrilla Company, whose work has been greeted with much critical acclaim, was formerly itinerant, but now offers all productions at Santa Ana's Empire Theater. Following the Nov. 12 premiere, Corpus Christi will run at least until Dec. 19. Reservations are available by calling (714) 547-4688.