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Theater review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Was Judas misunderstood? — that's the question at the heart of this offbeat play


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When Dante Alighieri laid out his intricate plan for heaven, purgatory and hell for his Divine Comedy, he consigned Judas Iscariot to the lowest depths of hell and designated Brutus and Cassius as his bunkmates in that ultimate nadir of sin. So there is precedent for Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which rehabs — or at least reconsiders — Iscariot's foul reputation. Just two weeks earlier, you could have watched Shakespeare poking Dante in the eye at Spirit Square by having Mark Antony label his rival as "the noblest Roman of them all" in Julius Caesar.

Guirgis doesn't go nearly as far in his claims for Judas, but at two hours and 34 minutes, he does go on nearly as long. From the beginning, Guirgis is inclined to grant Judas some slack. We seem to be in Purgatory, in the court of Judge Littlefield, where cases come up for review and appeal. The very idea of granting Judas a hearing sounds ludicrous to Littlefield, even when defense advocate Fabiana Aziza Cunningham comes with a writ signed by St. Peter.

When Fabiana comes back with a writ from God, the judge is willing to bend, so the trial proceeds. The issue never seems to be purgatorial — whether Judas has suffered enough — but whether he deserved opprobrium in the first place. Nor does Judas seem to be even mildly interested in the outcome, for he is usually frozen in a catatonic state unless he comes alive for flashbacks of his life or when Jesus rouses him after the trial. Since the impetus for the trial comes from the Almighty, questioning the judgment of an omniscient and infallible Deity, you might say these whole proceedings are self-involved and self-contradictory.

While the evening drags in spots, there are also courtroom confrontations that call Shaw's Saint Joan to mind and monologues that meander like the high points of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Fabiana's main lines of argument are that Judas regretted his betrayal, attempted to give back the 30 pieces of silver, and pleaded with Pontius Pilate to recant his accusations against Jesus — before committing suicide in his despair. Aside from underscoring Judas' remorse, Fabiana seeks to spread his guilt around, to Pilate, to the high priest Caiaphas, and to Satan.

Compared with these epic cross-examinations, the jockeying between Fabiana, Judge Littlefield and the slimy, obsequious prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy, are trivial and comical. Balancing the cosmic and the inconsequential should have been paramount for Guirgis as he crafted his trial. I'd be more satisfied if the denouement provided us with a keener sense of the harmony — or chaos — of a universe where Judas is consigned to eternal penance or damnation. Instead, I found the monologues by the foreman of the jury and then by Jesus (yes, that Jesus) to be anticlimactic.

The cast of 14 actors is resourcefully directed by Heather Byrd, so don't blame them. Antagonism between Caroline Renfro as Fabiana and Michael Smallwood as Yusef consistently crackles with amusement, for not only is Fabiana's the superior mind, she serenely rebuffs Yusef's crude sexual advances. But the man on the bench, Jonathan Ray as Judge Littlefield, upstages them, particularly when he circles round to the witness box and becomes the righteous Caiaphas, thundering venom at all who question him. Even these exploits are eclipsed by Christian Casper's two turns on the stand, first as Satan, then as an unpredictable, atheistic Sigmund Freud.

I'm not really sure whether Brandon Samples has as much to say portraying Iscariot as Dominic Weaver does as the belligerent, scornful Pontius Pilate, but it's certainly refreshing whenever Judas snaps out of it and comes alive. Yet Weaver does more for Iscariot's case as Pilate than Judas does for himself. Fabiana becomes Iscariot's champion by default, for he is no more effective as a defendant than he was as an apostle. Only this time, Judas is betraying himself.


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