The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – 2 separate reviews
The Ultimate Traitor By Laura Stewart
The Ultimate Traitor
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Through Sunday, June 28 2009
At Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. $20; 407-328-9005 www.emptyspacestheatre.org
In a time of doubt and millennial fears, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s new production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2005 off-Broadway hit, offers a different perspective: absolute despair, shot through with gritty humor and, ultimately, hope.
Expressing all that, especially through the mythical trial of a character known for betraying Jesus to the Romans and causing his crucifixion, is a challenge. But it’s one director John DiDonna (in collaboration with Seth Kubersky) and his outstanding cast met and more than mastered. Even without hilarious one-liners and more subtle jokes that reflect a wide range of human failings, Judas Iscariot would be a sensation. If its arguments appear to revolve around the classic God-versus-Satan theme, its methods and stunningly raw, moving conclusion do not.
From the first scene, when Judas’ lawyers begin their battle for his soul in a hellishly lit “purgatory” courtroom, calling on the forces of good and evil, the large cast handles their dense, multilayered roles nimbly. As one witness after another appears, to laughs and appreciative groans, a new view of Judas takes shape. Especially vivid are St. Monica, portrayed as a B-girl (Trenell Mooring) who cracks streetwise as prim defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Babette Garber, tense and hectoring) demands that the judge (played with a witty but workable gender twist by Avis Marie Barnes) hear her case, and the smooth, seductive Satan (a superbly slimy Dennis Neal), as cool as he can be under any kind of cross-examination.
The glib and smarmy prosecutor El-Fayoumy (Stephen Lima) and a series of sharply sketched witnesses play against Cunningham’s literally divine defense, weaving together the sad story of Judas (Roger Floyd, in a dizzyingly diverse series of emotional outbursts). Slumped on the courtroom floor, catatonic after his suicide and 2,000 years in the ninth circle of hell, Judas embodies both his traditional sinister role and the benign view that emerged recently, through the “lost gospels” that show Judas as merely carrying out Jesus’ desire to shed his mortal coil, at his request.
Prosecutor El-Fayoumy is good-natured enough, though obsequious to the delightfully egocentric Mother Theresa (Marty Stonerock) and poking fun at Sigmund Freud (Pat Ward, complete with cigar). But the prosecutor is the ideal foil for shrill, predatory Cunningham, just as a bland character present in every scene turns out to be a perfect foil for all of the characters in the play.
We wonder the identity of the nameless person – quietly sweeping the floor, serving wine or shouldering Pontius Pilate’s golf bag like a cross – who rounds out and defuses Judas’ numb negativity. When Jesus Christ (Alexis Jackson) finally speaks, it is in the simplest, most accepting terms. But the words cut through the play’s intricate, brilliant fabric and suggest that the problem may not be the silence of God, but man’s inability to listen.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
By Stephen Adly Guigis
Directed by John DiDonna
Starring Avis Marie Barnes, Babette Garber, Stephen Lima, Roger Floyd
Empty Spaces Theatre Company Lowndes Shakespeare Center, Orlando FL
After a good parochial education and years of studying Joseph Campbell and the Classical Philosophers, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity still seem to me a convolved, self-conflicting mess. If you have never recognized the fundamental incompatibility of Omniscience (I can see everything everywhere past present and future) and Omnipotence (I can make anything happen, anywhere, anytime) you might find some solace in this wordy and theologically wobbly piece of surrealism. And you WILL find some of Orlando’s highest power talent chewing on meaty rolls as hard as the debate between Free Will and Determinism.
Henrietta Iscariot (Peg O’Keefe) just buried her son Judas in shame, mourning that no parent should have to bury their child. She refuses the four small stones left on top of his grave, thus symbolically rejecting the power of the Judaic god YHWH. We descend from her Potter’s Field to a court room in Purgatory where Judge Frank Littlefield (Barnes) presides. She’s feisty and officious, and steadily rejects a variety of writs, all intended to get various human mega-sinners out of Hell and into Heaven, or at least into a karmic work release program. Irish gypsy lawyer Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Garber) argues for the case of Judas, (Floyd) a now cationic resident of the ninth ring of hell. It takes the aid of streetwise nudge St. Monica (Trennel Mooring) to get on the divine docket, and then we enter the real center of the story – an oddly structured retrial of Judas, with various ancient and contemporary figures who all chime in the merits of the conviction. In the end, we find Jesus (Alexis Jackson) simply loves all, and while “Faith” is offhandedly referred to, it’s transubstantiated into a “Lack of Despair” as the ticket into the pearly gates.
Ok, all of this feels like religion as seen thorough the eyes of 20th century pop culture, but the performances are nearly all perfect. The gloomy, teary O’Keefe, the sassy and willful Barnes, and the dripping-with-depression Floyd all anchor the action, but the supporting cast makes this sing. Stephen Lima is the vaguely Arabic and very oily prosecutor (El-Fayoumy). He brown noses his way through the trial as he repeatedly attempts to seduce the defense lawyer Cunningham. Lawrence Benjamin was fine as Julius the Bailiff, but became truly scary when he appears as a Black Panther version of Simon the Zealot. Valensky Sylvain cut an elegant figure as the gentle giant St. Matthew, and Satan even appears in the form of Dennis Neal, the always suave and snappy dresser with a violent temper lurking under that Armani coat.
While “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” doesn’t cover every single facet of Judas’s guilt or innocence, it leads you around the block several times and leaves you with a spinning head in the bad part of town, wearing little more than your philosophical undies and one high heel. Some of the modern philosophers just seemed to elongate the story – while I love Marty Stonerock’s Palm Beach maven Gloria, her Mother Theresa segment dragged on and mostly points out that even the canonized aren’t perfect. Sigmund Freud (Pat Ward) drew some well deserved laughs but again, his modern and no longer fashionable psychoanalysis added little to understanding what prompted Judas.
If you have a strong faith, whether in the acceptance of the divine, or the conviction there ain’t no such thing, you will likely make it thorough this journey unscathed. If you’re sitting on a fence, I expect you’ll have barbed wire marks in your metaphysical behind when you walk out. You can chase these arguments around forever, or you can pick and choose and sign up for an arbitrary position and worship in the Church of Your Choice. Here’s the question the author ignores: Was Judas the creepiest little sneak to ever walk the earth, or did he take the real fall for Christianity, voluntarily entering and remaining in Hell so the rest of us could feel better on Sunday morning? There’s heresy lurking here, the kind that gets you burned at the stake. Tread carefully…