Most plays that fail do so because they don’t say enough. A few fail because they try to say too much. You can place The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in the latter category.
It’s not that Stephen Adly Guirgis’ courtroom drama and philosophical meditation on the ultimate fate of history’s greatest betrayer completely fails. There are undeniably thought-provoking passages in his writing, and a handful of commanding performances in STAGEStheatre’s current production makes the nearly three-hour experience palatable.
But there is so much unnecessary silliness—from lion-slipper-wearing judges to broom-pushing angels—that the circus-like atmosphere continually undercuts truly big ideas. That renders Guirgis’ apparently sincere exploration of the need for individuals to participate in their own salvation nearly meaningless, a terrible thing for a play that works so hard to ask so many meaningful questions.
Tone is an enormous issue in this play, and the problems begin early. A man (Judas, who stays in this place throughout the play) dressed in rags and uncontrollably shaking sits downstage right as a woman (later revealed to be his mother) delivers a heartfelt monologue about the unbearable pain of a mother who must bury her child.
We then find ourselves in purgatory, in the bizarre courtroom of a judge (Wilson Raiser, a dead-ringer for Christopher Lloyd) who sips coffee out of a cup emblazoned with a Confederate flag and spits out Southern homilies. After a few false starts, a lawyer, Cunningham (Tiffany Toner), enters the courtroom with a writ signed by God to reopen the case of Judas Iscariot. Her main argument: How can a God of mercy and forgiveness consign any soul to the depths of hell? On the other side is El-Fayoumy (Anthony Rutowicz), a lawyer who, for whatever reason, believes that by betraying the Messiah, Judas has earned his fate of consignment to the one place in the universe where God doesn’t exist.
The bulk of the play centers on the testimony and interrogation of an impressive gallery of witnesses: four down-to-earth apostles; a hard-of-hearing Mother Teresa; a defiantly atheistic Sigmund Freud; the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, who turned Christ over to the Romans; a thoroughly unapologetic Pontius Pilate; and, of course, the Prince of Darkness himself, Satan. People with limited knowledge of the Gospels will be hopelessly lost in the trajectory of Christ’s journey from the Last Supper to Calvary. Likewise, they might not detect the subtle shift in the play from that of Judas’ fate to the question of the importance of individuals playing a vital role in their own salvation. Even those familiar with the Bible will find it hard staying on Guirgis’ theological tracks due to his unnecessary introduction of elements and asides, from the Hegelian dialectic to Freud’s use of cocaine.
Director Kevin Slay is unable to rein in the caterwauling script, even adding to the chaos through clunky blocking and musical underscoring that either obscures sincere moments or comes off as cheesy (whether the script calls for Freud to enter to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine”or Slay green-lighted it, it just doesn’t work). As should be expected in a play with 18 actors, performances range from stellar to mediocre at best. But the standout performances are very good: Mike Martin approaches Satan as many actors would, as a diabolically cunning supernatural force that demands respect from all quarters. But he finesses the role just enough that we’re never sure where Satan stands on any issue; this is an eminently human Prince of Darkness, likeable even, making the performance all the scarier. Bob Tully’s Pontius Pilate—a wise-cracking, anti-Semitic misogynist who tears into Cunningham with hair-raising savagery—is also riveting, and both Rutowicz and Toner in the roles of the attorneys more than stand their ground—at least until Satan eviscerates their respective characters in wickedly hostile form.
It’s not until the play’s final minutes that the two characters whom the play is truly about, Judas and Jesus, finally get their moment. And it’s a soberingly effective one. Daniel Penilla’s Jesus is a wonderful synthesis of supernatural grace and earthy presence, and Joseph Tostado’s Judas, who gets a chance to speak only after spending nearly two-and-a-half hours cowering in a corner, delivers a performance that is both fierce and heartbreaking. But after this unbelievably intense meeting of betrayer and betrayed, as Jesus pleads with Judas to step back into the light, things get weird again. Butch Honeywell (an effective Sean Coutu), a simple handyman and foreman of the jury, informs Judas of the verdict. He then tells Judas they are each a betrayer. But instead of betraying the Messiah, Butch betrayed his wife.
It’s a big “What the fuck?” moment. The incongruous stories of Butch and Judas just don’t mesh. It’s the final example of Guirgis trying to make his theological and philosophical pill go down smoother. But all it does is make this play stick in one’s throat.
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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 13. $17-$20.
This review appeared in print as "Trial and Errors: STAGEStheatre’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot does little justice to history’s greatest traitor."