Judas Iscariot is in hell—though it looks a lot like UC Irvine's Studio Theatre.
In this production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a deceased lawyer stuck in purgatory (Helen Sage Howard, stumbling over her lines at nearly every crucial moment) appeals to God for a reprieve on Judas' behalf. An Arab ambulance-chaser arrives from hell to represent God's side of things, while a whole host of the famous/infamous—Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Satan, Pontius Pilate, and several saints and apostles—are called to the witness stand to testify.
Using that high-concept idea to examine the nature of Christian grace and existential despair, Guirgis doles out his revelations (and what little there is of a plot) very slooowly throughout the play's three hours.
Like Guirgis, director Jim Knipple connects with the spiritual aspects of the script, but the contemplative moments are so few and far between that even his enthusiastic staging feels stodgy and repetitive. Part of that is because underneath everything, it's really just a courtroom drama—witness, objection, surprise testimony, repeat, etc.—but the other issue is that while Giurgis attempts to present the story of Judas in an accessible, modern way to audiences, it falls flat because he doesn't know what he wants his play to be. Is it religious screed, black comedy, or reactionary lecture?
The play's right-wing politics really do it in. Despite claims of embracing "political incorrectness" (conservative-speak for "Why can't I be as hateful as I want to be?"), nearly every woman with any strength in the play is referred to as a bitch, or comments are made about her tits, ass or cunt. It's only Mother Teresa (a pitch-perfect Lauren Wallace) who walks away unscathed. Asked about her historical dealings with dictators and acceptances of luxury plane trips and blood money to help her work, she shrugs off the troubling ethical questions and proceeds to patronizingly harangue a character on the topic of abortion. We're clearly meant to be on Teresa's side during the other character's humiliation, while the nun's character flaws are smugly ignored. And what is an audience to make of the characterization of the Arab attorney? Mocked throughout the play—he even acknowledges that the abuse is understandable "because of recent events" (i.e., 9/11)—his oily obsequiousness, gold chains, greasy hair and polyester clothing can be discomfortingly funny, but only in a racist-joke kind of way.
In the large, uneven cast, Ben Mathes steals the show as Satan, sitting in his witness chair, crotch thrust out defiantly as he answers questions. Granted, his is the best-written character, but Mathes' performance is also the most accomplished. Witty, sexy and scary, he owns the stage every time he's on it.
While the epic, ass-numbing run time might suit the subject matter if the play had enough substance to feed our heads, Giurgis clearly never met a word he didn't love, a monologue he couldn't milk, or dialogue he couldn't overwrite, so The Last Days of Judas Iscariot really only works in fits and starts. Even the final scene—a grace note in which Jesus begs Judas to accept the forgiveness He's already given him—is interrupted by a wildly unfocused monologue from an extraneous character that's too specifically an explanation of the play's themes.
Much like Jesus reaching out to his former friend, we want the playwright to shut up a minute so that we can feel and connect. But Giurgis won't let us—he just keeps talking.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at UC Irvine Studio Theatre, 300 Arts, Irvine, (949) 824-2787; www.ticketmaster.com. Thurs.-Fri., Feb. 7-8, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $8-$10.
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