As a once-upon-a-time Irish Catholic with an Episcopalian father and a Buddhist godmother who managed to snag few reform Jewish boyfriends throughout the years, I get uncomfortable around religion. Religious discussion, while fascinating and informative, has always made me nervous. And maybe it’s just me, but when I first heard of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, I was instantly uneasy. An entire two-and-a-half hour play dedicated to putting the infamous “Biblical Bad Boy,” Judas, on trial, was not my idea of a good time. The idea sounded elementary to me. Instructive, at most, like something that should be performed for a Catholic middle-school’s theology class.
But boy, was I wrong. Sanguine Theatre Company’s stunning production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” was everything but elementary. It was not a two-and-a-half hour Bible-thumping sermon, like I dreaded it might be. Instead, it was a fast-paced, sharp-tongued exploration of humanity. We, as an audience, were faced with questions surrounding guilt, forgiveness, fate, and the power of free will. It’s a play about persuasive speech, and the ultimate effect of words, words, words.
It’s a wordy play, but the cast’s handle on the language allows the piece to live and breathe. Every bit, from Tai Verely’s incredibly energetic delivery as the ghetto-fabulous St. Monica, to Ashley Klanac’s articulate and impassioned “Cunningham,” was simply flawless. It surprised me, that such a dense piece, based on biblical and historical characters, managed to remain so light. But I realized that the piece is hardly about the Bible, and it’s hardly about history. It’s about the people in it. It’s about humanity, and the problems we, as humans, have always faced. We have a hard time imagining “Doubting Thomas,” as one of us. Just a guy who had some doubts. It’s difficult to connect with Judas and Jesus, who have become so enormously important in our history and cultural development, but in a speech delivered by Mary Magdalene (played by the oh-so-lovely Monica Gonzalez), we learn that they were all just good friends. They respected and loved each other. Judas’ betrayal is something we’ve all felt, to some degree, because we are all human. We make mistakes. All we can do is learn to forgive ourselves.
And that’s what I took away. This is not a play about God’s forgiveness, and while we hear Jesus’ declaration of his mercy and eternal love, it’s not a play about seeking Jesus’ approval or God’s approval. We learn that Judas has willed himself into this catatonic state, in purgatory, unable to move or speak for himself, simply because of his inability to exonerate himself. Jesus, played by the reverent and sincere Sergio LoDolce, explains that he is everything and everywhere, and yet, people still ask him, “Where are you?” Jesus directs the question right back at Judas. It becomes clear that Judas chooses to remain alone and un-forgiven, because he is still wrestling with guilt. He is nowhere. He is in limbo.
The play is also about the power of persuasion.plays the whimsical, yet commanding prosecutor, El Fayoumi, who flatters his opponents to get what he wants. Jeff Ronan as Satan, who simply oozes evil, manages to break the stoic and cold Cunnigham, when he unearths some of her deepest secrets. Surprisingly, Jesus is the only one who cannot seem to persuade his audience-of-one, Judas, one way or the other, because Judas has allowed himself no room for forgiveness.
Jillian Robertson’s vision, executed with tight and economical direction allowed this heavy, “wordy,” play to soar. The minimal set, designed by Nicholas Schwartz was used perfectly to allow for some movement and change, in what could otherwise become a stagnant courtroom drama. My personal hero is the lighting designer, Jake Fine, who managed to illuminate the spectrum of emotions, as well as the quickly changing pace, that composes “Judas.” The focus was clear, the intent was clear, and I felt taken care of throughout this arduous piece.
The cast is entirely wonderful, which is a rare thing to find in off-off Broadway theatre. Each actor, many of whom were double or triple-cast, had a firm grasp on his or her character’s…character. They brought these historical and biblical figures to life and they made me care. Every one of them had an important story and it was a pleasure to behold. As an audience member, I learned a lot. As a once-upon-a-time Catholic, I learned a hell of a lot. But most importantly, beyond all of that, I felt so much, during those two-and-a-half hours. And feeling—happy, sad, hysterical, guilty, proud, humbled—these are the things that make us human.
I can only hope that Sanguine will attempt another run at this show. This fine piece of work deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and we, the humans of the world, the mere mortals, deserve to understand the individual power that we each possess.
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Presented by: Sanguine Theatre Company
The Drilling Company
August 18-21st, 2011
Directed by: Jillian Robertson
Executive Producer: Karly Fischer