Jesuses come and Jesuses go.
It is said each generation remakes God in its own image.
No surprise then that this Easter Sunday we have the Matthew Passion, a bold but, from all accounts, flawed Off-Broadway play that draws a parallel between Jesus, gay-bash victim Matthew Shepard, and an HIV+ gay man wracked by the guilt of having survived so long with AIDS.
In a a style reminiscent of Angels in America, the plot weaves in and out of the lives of the three men, with dream encounters between them ( the HIV man is acting a part in a play about Matthew Shepard), climaxing in a meeting of the three on the hill of the Crucifixion, above, with the two gay men cast as the thieves, one despairing of his life, the other filled with the promise of a better world to come.
True or false, dogma or fairytale, the Passion of Jesus is a powerful story through which deep rivers of universal meaning flow. It has been and will continue to be reinterpreted. In the Matthew Passion the accent falls on the triumph of hope over suffering, a plot neatly summed up by the play's website promo:
"A man who chose to die. A man who should be dead. And a boy who never saw it coming."
Writes Matt Denton of nytheater.com:
Phil Hall's new, earnest, and heartfelt play with music, Matthew Passion, blends the story of the Passion of Christ with the events leading up to Matthew Shepard's death on a fencepost outside Laramie, Wyoming. Hall makes an explicit connection between these two narratives, pointing out that both of these young men became martyrs whose deaths brought about important and positive social change.
Hall doesn't press the similarity too hard, which is smart, because obviously Jesus has proven enormously more influential than Matthew Shepard. But the idea of the death of a persecuted loner helping others discover (or remember) their compassion and humanity is powerful and valuable, and the genuineness of Hall's belief in the simple lessons of these ugly events helps Matthew Passion achieve a level of eloquence and potency...
Matthew Passion's message of love and hope is clear if perhaps somewhat simplistic. Hall blends New Age spiritualism with a very specific gay sensibility: How many plays boast scenes depicting the Last Supper and a night at a gay dance bar, complete with go-go boys? and how many would put Jesus in the dance bar scene?
Hall's score -- there are ten musical numbers in this one-act show -- reflect that blend, taking in both a very beautiful new setting of the old spiritual Joshua F'it the Battle of Jericho and a pulsing club dance number called You Need a Bitch Slap.
The New York Times had similar mixed feelings:
Mr. Hall ties the whole thing together in the final scene, in which Matthew Shepard ascends through a crowd of angels to be welcomed in heaven by God, played by the voice of Jim the actor [in the play within the play], who in this moment finds redemption.
This scene also epitomizes the problems with Matthew Passion. It is brave of Mr. Hall to attempt something so openly spiritual, ambitious and naÃ¯ve; he is seeking to establish a religious orthodoxy that can co-exist with a gay sensibility. But the play is not quite sure whether it wants to be camp or an Easter pageant: ... at times it seems to be a gay version of a biblical greeting card.
hat tip to Jockohomo