Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ensemble Finesse: Theatrical Tendencies' CORPUS CHRISTI

Theatrical Tendencies’ CORPUS CHRISTI makes its impact with a well-orchestrated cast.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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On a technical end, Theatrical Tendencies’ production of Corpus Christi has strikingly clean feel to it. There’s an overriding sense of crisp precision about the group’s presence at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center in every detail. Comfortable padded chairs fill the storefront studio space in exceedingly conscientious rows. Look-up and there’s a lighting grid that seems hung with a very neat semi-symmetry. Far from antiseptic, it’s the kind of clean, simple order that fades out into the periphery of consciousness when you’re not thinking about it. The lights dim and the show starts.

The thirteen-member cast climbs onstage in a very casual manner and the show is introduced. This is to be the story of Jesus Christ as seen through contemporary eyes—something of a fusion between the contemporary world and that of the New Testament. The cast changes into costume during the introduction. The costumes here are uniform—white, button-down shirts and khakis. One by one the actors introduce themselves and become baptized as their characters—Jesus and his twelve apostles. They’re sharing the stae with a few mismatched chairs and a large, simple but flashy sign clearly stating the title of the play as a backdrop for the action. It’s got kind of a faded Vegas feel about it which I was a bit uneasy with at first, but as the show settled-in, I started to appreciate its simplicity. The top and sides of the logo fade out into the edges of the action, much of it playing-out in front of the word, “CHRIST,” in immense, larger than life sans-serifs.

As the play begins, there’s a pleasantly casual sense of camaraderie. Director Mark E. Schuster has done a really good job of fostering a rapport between the actors that makes it genuinely feel, for the most part, like these thirteen people would be hanging out in the space even if they weren’t performing the play. That overall sense of connection between members of the ensemble helps rally the performance through some of its weaker moments.

At the center of the action, of course, is the dynamic between Jesus and Judas. James A. Skiba holds a peaceful kind of charisma about him in the role of Jesus—referred to in the script as Joshua. The challenge of playing one of the single most towering characters to come out of the past couple of millennia is nothing to take lightly. Skiba plays it with a simple charisma that has the distinct feel of Jimmy Stewart in an old Frank Capra film. Skiba has an idealized nice-guy charm that it would be very difficult not to empathize with.

Joshua Devitt plays Judas to Skiba’s Jesus. One of two men to be playing Judas in a high-profile stage production this weekend, Devitt’s performance here is every bit as cleverly-rendered as Evan Koepnick’s in the UWM production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot  across town. McNally’s Corpus Christi doesn’t give the character quite as much depth as he’s allowed in The Last Days. Devitt’s strength here is his ability to act in silence without making it seem at all forced. Much of what we see of Judas here lies in his silent reactions to what goes on around him. That Koepnick can render a solid performance without many lines is a great asset to the production—playing in harmony with the rest of the production’s minimalist simplicity.

The rest of the cast provides a very dynamic backdrop for the show. Michael Endter, Mark Neufang and Jeffrey Berens provide some of the more outstanding moments in the periphery of the plot. Berens’ Thaddeus is a diva with a few moments of clever comic punctuation. Endter carries a vibrant energy onstage as Peter. There’s a clever moment between Endter and Skiba when Joshua meets Peter . . . the visual of fish mongering is brought across with a McDonald’s bag and filet o’ fish boxes. Like the better parts of the staging, it’s a sharp, hip anachronism the delivers the story in clean, dramatic simplicity. 

Theatrical Tendencies’ production of Corpus Christi runs through March 26th at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center on 703 South 2nd Street. For reservations, call the MGAC at 414-755-2700 or visit Theatrical Tendencies online

 

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