The Judas Tree
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
April 25, 2008
According to Merriam-Webster, a Judas Tree is a type of tree or shrub "cultivated for its showy flowers" and believed to be the kind of tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. In the play The Judas Tree, written by Mary Fengar Gail, that titular item takes on significant symbolic meaning. "I should have buried you under a Judas Tree," shouts Elena Abril Fiero to her lover Arturo Salvia when she learns that he has betrayed her and exposed her crimes to the authorities. But beyond embodying Arturo's betrayal of Elena, the Judas Tree also encapsulates the heart of Elena's crime: she, like Judas, has killed for profit. Elena, however, also believes that she is doing holy work—the work of her goddess, La Madre Guerra—by killing these individuals. Elena is giving them the chance of everlasting life through death—the same opportunity that Judas's betrayal imparts to Christ.
The Judas Tree, deftly directed by Lorca Peress, focuses on the trial of Elena Fiero. The story is loosely based on an actual event, the trial of Dorothea Puente, who, according to the program, was "accused of murdering her tenants so she could steal their government benefit checks." Like Puente, Elena runs a boarding house; she takes in wayward souls, the elderly, drug addicts, and alcoholics. From this pool of down-and-outers, Elena selects her sacrificial victims, whose corpses are used to fertilize her plants, whose souls are used to praise her goddess, and whose checks are used to support her expensive garden. Elena's secret appears to be safe until a detective, Arturo Salvia, begins to investigate her in order to learn what happened to his partner's missing niece, whose last address was Elena's boarding house. Arturo quickly falls in love with Elena. Arturo dismisses Elena's strange religious beliefs—she prays to her own personal goddess and finds more passion in gardening than in any human interaction—but does nothing to stop her. When a boarder tells him that she saw Elena burying someone in the backyard, he digs up the garden and discovers the horrible truth—the missing man is indeed buried there. Elena is, likely, a murderer.
The action of the play fluidly moves back and forth between the present events in the courtroom and the events of the past. The exposition is revealed through the use of flashbacks. Rather than describing what took place, each moment is played out in real-time, with the change in setting clearly denoted in distinct lighting changes (the lighting design, by Alex Moore, makes the progression of events in the play easy to follow). In addition to these two simultaneous and interlocking narratives, Arturo steps out of time of either narrative to reflect, poetically, on what has happened, both to him (he has suffered a stroke and is now paralyzed, yet in his mind believes himself to be a tree) and around him. John Haggerty performs this heightened text with clarity and precision, making even the most abstract and esoteric of speeches resonate with meaning. This device often stops the forward-moving action of the play. By breaking the narrative frame for these poetic digressions, the audience is distanced from the play, preventing them from getting too lost in vicarious emotional experience and forcing them to reflect on the issues at stake in the play.
To further this distancing, the play also incorporates a Greek chorus of sorts, known as the Chorus Corpus Flora, and portrayed by Michael Martin-Badier, Grace Bernicker, Andrea Pizza, Lisa Walker, and Patricio Witis. These individuals sing, dance, and move about the stage, and, even more so than Arturo, act as a living embodiment of the Brechtian alienation effect. Their presence is also a clear reminder that this is the world of theatre, not a window on reality. Their flora costumes, designed by Peter Janis, show the artifice of the device while still vividly evoking who and what they are. Dramaturgically, their presence makes perfect sense: Elena grows her garden with the help of rotting human flesh and these are plants made human.
Roseanne Medina is chilling in her portrayal of Elena. Her Elena is so frightening because of the simplicity and fluidity of her performance. She does not play the psychopath by raising her voice or showing physical strength; rather, she appears to be the saintly woman all of those around her believe her to be, making her actions, when brought to light, appear all the more psychopathic. She believes her motives so completely that it is hard to disagree with her, and at some moments, the audience can feel themselves almost rooting for her. Daniel H. Hicks, Jose Febus, and Colleen Cosgrove are also particularly notable for their abilities to portray the troubled tenants of Elena's rooming house realistically and empathetically and then switch to playing key members of the courtroom drama (a detective, Elena's lawyer, and a doctor specializing in psychosis, respectively). Each character is unique and nuanced, making it easy to forget that it is the same actor in both roles.
This play is abstract and disturbing, yet its relevance to our world is undeniable. The play isolates a compelling conundrum regarding sacrifice—i.e., what should an individual be willing to do for, or because of, faith, and if faith, in and of itself, is enough to justify murder. Gail's play astutely reminds us that there are no clear answers in questions of belief. It also highlights the idea that a person's exterior tells us nothing about who she really is. Even the most seemingly saintly of individuals, like Elena, can do horrific things. And even the most evil actions, like murder, can bring salvation.