The ArtsThe ultimate traitor
The ultimate traitor
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Through Sunday, June 28 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St.
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.