‘The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot,’ a new play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, explores the ambitious idea of putting Judas Iscariot on trial for his betrayal of Jesus Christ. It had its opening night on Jan. 31 before a sold-out crowd in Studio Theatre, and will continue to run through Feb. 9.
The intimate yet cold setting of a ‘courtroom from hell,’ aptly named ‘Hope,’ provides the right ambience, thanks to artistic director Eli Simon, and makes the audience feel as if they were actually witnessing the case unfold. Often enough, plays make the audience feel as if it is watching from a distance. With a judge’s podium that seems out of a Tim Burton film, one could already garner the fact that this tale is going to be from your grandma’s Bible study.
The play grapples with multiple themes such as free will and the idea of whether God’s love is truly unconditional. Director Jim Knipple writes, ‘[The play] is about an injustice of the most horrendous kind. This injustice is not perpetrated by the title character. It is committed by Jesus, and his unjust act has a name. It is called grace.’
Guirgis’ Jesus (Ethan Sawyer) is one who seems more human, not only in emotion, but also in attire: a white T-shirt and jeans. Knipple does a marvelous job of juggling all the characters together. They range from the babbling fool, attorney Yusef El-Fayoumy (Tyler Seiple) to Sigmund Freud (Justin Patrick Murphy) to a headphone-wearing Mother Teresa (Lauren Wallace).
To pick crowd favorites would be a challenge. One cannot resist Sean Jackson’s portrayal of a lollipop-sucking, fiery Southern Judge Littlefield who has some demons to explain himself since he has been in purgatory for over a century. Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Helen Sage Howard) is the defense attorney representing Judas Iscariot who has the temper and persistency to match Littlefield. Helen provides a masterful performance in the dramatic scene where Satan (Ben Mathes) is being examined for the second time.
Heated words are exchanged about God’s ability to produce bad apples if he is all-good and all-powerful, with Satan wittingly responding, ‘I don’t believe in good and bad. What I believe in is Truth.’ Prosecutor El-Fayoumy provides comic relief for most of the play. Seiple does an excellent job in playing El-Fayoumy, the classic unaware-of-his-surroundings fool, without being tempted to go over the top.
Judas Iscariot (Joe Johnson) for most of the play is in a catatonic state and so Johnson’s performance is limited. However, when Johnson is let loose, his performance steals the show.
From juvenile Judas to deranged and drunk disciple, Johnson is able to swing into character with great ease. His best performance is when confronting good and evil personified: Jesus and Satan. Colorful characters are not in short supply in this tale. Saint Monica, the self-described nag of heaven, provides foul-mouthed lip service to just about anyone who will listen. She provides memorable lines one right after the other in her confrontation with a catatonic Judas culminating with, ‘