By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Elisabeth Ross
Iowa City – In the first part of his Divine Comedy, Dante places Judas Iscariot in the final circle of Hell, forever to be chewed and clawed by a vicious Satan, the only traitor worse than Judas himself. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is a bit more generous to the notorious biblical figure; not only does he get a chance to redeem himself, but his damnation is merely to ruminate on the past and his Satan is less a slobbering three-headed monster than a slick, pragmatic upper-level manager.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot explores the story of Judas with an exhaustively researched examination of the Biblical stories, contemporary histories, and theological ideas surrounding his betrayal of Jesus. The piece is quite funny, though very long, and it centers around the conceit of a courtroom in Purgatory where historical witnesses, including the Devil himself, can be called upon and questioned. Dreamwell’s production, directed by Matthew Brewbaker, runs through September 14.
After a couple stage-setting monologues, the piece opens with the familiar trope of a courtroom scene. Scott K. Strode plays a cranky judge (a suicide from the American Civil War). Sharon Falduto plays Cunningham, the agnostic defense lawyer, who seems to have a hidden agenda in clearing Judas’ name. Ruben Lebron-Vellegas plays El Fayoumy, the sleazy, flattering prosecuting attorney. These characters are a lot of fun, but the play has trouble taking off. Part of this is due to the script, which is a bit circular at times, but there seem to be moments where objectives are glossed over and actions are unclear or taken without a lot of commitment. The thing starts to crackle and pop, however, when Judas (Mike Nelson) takes the stage. Judas doesn’t have any direct interest in the trial itself; instead, we see him brooding in interstitials, or showing up in flashbacks when witnesses tell their part of the story. In the first of these, Judas gives a spinning top to a poor boy who has lost his mother (Dennis Aska). Both Nelson and Aska are really lively in this scene, and they play both the humor and the reality of the situation very well.
In the brooding scenes, Nelson is quiet, calm, and fascinating to watch. We get the sense of his struggle with despair without him having to do much but reflect the things the others are saying about him. When either Lucifer (Dennis Lambing) or Jesus (Chuck Dufano) speak, we see the struggle he’s going through, the anger, the resentment, the overwhelming guilt. But these quiet moments also highlight the stubbornness, the clinging to regret that’s keeping him stuck. Nelson pulls this off quite well, with naturalism and apparent ease.
The other characters include a smattering of historical figures. There are some great moments of character acting here. One notable performance is Jessica Murillo as a easygoing Hispanic Mother Theresa, who flirts with the prosecuting attorney and puts forth a simple, pragmatic theology of taking responsibility for your own salvation. Murillo creates a charming character and is engaged with everyone on stage. James Toth takes an entertaining turn as Simon the Zealot, played here as a hip young revolutionary, lounging on the stand in a Che Guevara t-shirt. Brian Tanner plays a brash, foul-mouthed Pontious Pilate in desert fatigues. His response to Cunnigham’s prodding is a lot of fun: after attempting to plead the Fifth, he explodes across the stage, chewing out Cunningham and finally taking his case to the audience.
|Ruben Lebron-Vellegas, James Toth, Scott K. Strode,
Pilate explains the political situation in Judea, and why he “washed his hands” of the Jesus problem. This explanation is quite detailed and not entirely dramatic, and here lies both the strength and weakness of the piece. Guirgis is very good at exploring the ins and outs of an issue with a lot of historical detail. This is fun for the audience because it is done in the vernacular with a hip sense of humor. This can feel more like a lecture than a play, however, as characters make the same point more than once, and Cunningham’s scene with Pilate is almost identical to her scene with Caiphas the Elder (Scott K. Strode).
Her conversation with Mother Theresa bears a lot of similarity to her scene with Satan, for that matter. However, this part is good craft; Lucifer’s honest, simple wisdom about despair, damnation, and their opposites is the delicious irony that makes the second act work. “The gates of Heaven are not locked,” he says, making it clear that everything going on in the courtroom is pointless and only Judas can save himself. Cunningham balks at this, pointing out that he’s the Prince of Lies and everything he says should be stricken from the record. But she also didn’t want to hear Mother Theresa when she said basically the same thing; she wanted to talk about abortion and donations from the Duvaliers. A liberal secular humanist, she tries to apply rational argument to the mystery of faith, and meets with frustration after frustration. Falduto is great in these scenes, and her last desperate attempts to trip up the Devil are very energetic and engaging. She is particularly good with Lambing; the play really activates when they’re on stage together, and the mutual disdain between the two characters is palpable.
In the end Jesus comes to Judas, with a familiar message: it’s up to Judas to accept him back into his heart, and all will be forgiven. A recently-dead man (Kim Qual) comes to Judas afterward and drives home the message with a simple mortal perspective: he still carries the guilt for cheating on his wife when he was living. Even though she never knew about the affair, clinging to that guilt is what tainted the relationship and brought him to Hell.
For all its irreverence, the show concludes with a very Christian message. Chuck Dufano’s cameo as Jesus is wonderful. “If you hate who I love, you do not know me,” he says, reminding us that if we carry our own private circle of Hell for Judas, for Pilate, or Caiphas, or even for George Bush, we’re missing the point. Dufano’s Jesus is soft-spoken and gentle, a good listener, a very calming presence in a desperate world. The few times he appears on stage add a lot, and this is a testament to Brewbaker’s thoughtful staging.
Dreamwell should be applauded for taking on as dense and challenging a script as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The production does stop and start, but when it’s going it’s really going, and the very lively characters give us the spoonful of sugar to chase the medicine of a crash course in Biblical history. Some really great character work has gone into this show. Special mention goes to Assistant Director Avonique Tipsword, who jumped in at the last minute to fill June Kungu’s absence as the sassy Saint Monica. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs through September 14. More information here.