The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 9, 2012
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a big play: it's more than three hours long, it has 27 characters, and it considers difficult questions of philosophy, religion, ethics, and morality. It is, therefore, entirely suitable for presentation by a company like T. Schreiber Studio, providing meaty opportunities to the school's students and alumni (19 of whom are in this cast) and a chance for the theater's audience and extended community to have a look at a provocative, challenging contemporary work.
The play is written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, and takes place in a section of downtown Purgatory called Hope. Here, we witness the trial of Judas Iscariot, presided over by a Civil War officer and argued by (for the defense) a spunky modern-day New Yorker of Irish and Gypsy descent named Fabiana Aziza Cunningham and (for the prosecution) a slippery Christian Egyptian flatterer named Yusef El-Fayoumy. Though Judas himself is catatonic, his cause is supported by Saint Monica and Judge Littlefield, who is initially repulsed by the idea, agrees to hear the case. The lawyers call on a broad array of witnesses, including the apostles Thomas, Peter, and Simon, Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and Satan.
I have to admit that I never really understood what Guirgis was going for in this piece. The case is announced as "God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Judas Iscariot," and I had trouble parsing that; I never figured out why Judas was being granted an appeal. Guirgis presents his characters mostly using contemporary (deliberately anachronistic) personas for them: Saint Monica, for example, speaks like this:
You ever drove down Santa Monica Boulevard? You ever ate some sushis down the Santa Monica Pier? Well dass my boulevard, and my pier, and dass all I gotta say about that—word to the wise, word is most definitely B-O-N-D bond...Anyways, (lemme catch my breaf), anyways up in heaven, a lotta peoples don't wanna hang with me cuz they say I'm a "nag." It's true. And you know what I say about that? I say; "Fuck them bitches..."
In the course of the play, the guilt and motivations of Judas, Caiaphas the Elder, and Pontius Pilate are all duly considered. Different perspectives on Jesus are put forth as well, though in the world of this play there seems no doubt that he was indeed divine. The role of the Jews of Judea in Jesus's life and death is debated at some length, but the existence of other religious beliefs (for example, Islam or Buddhism) isn't even acknowledged.
Ultimately, though Judas is the presumed focus of the play, it is the teachings of Christ that are at its center. I wonder why so many producers are returning to this theme this season (everywhere from La MaMa's Hot Lunch Apostles to Broadway's Godspell AND Jesus Christ Superstar).
Terry Schreiber directs this production, and it's bit of a departure for him after his exquisite productions of works like Stoppard's The Real Thing, Williams's The Night of the Iguana, and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. This play is all about clashing points of view, and so one of the things I accept as a hallmark of Schreiber's style—creation of an authentic and believable community or family on stage—isn't required here. Schreiber and his large cast play to Guirgis's broad archetypal characterizations: Eliud Kauffman's El-Fayoumy, for example, reminded me of Billy Crystal's over-the-top Fernando Lamas caricature over and over again.
As usual, Hal Tine's set transforms the intimate Gloria Maddox Theater into a surprising new space, here a timeless, vaguely apocalyptic imagining of Purgatory. Sherry Martinez's costumes are detailed and evocative (though I wished that, except for Mother Teresa and Judas's mother, the women in this play weren't all clad in tight dresses or leather pants). Lighting by Dennis Parichy and sound by Andy Cohen are both effectively designed.