By Dale King
Grad students in the Master of Fine Arts program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton wrap up their 2016-2017 season this weekend with an intensely dramatic retelling of a 2,000-year-old-story with critical contemporary consequences.
In fact, the play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, is steeped in passion, and unfolds at a slow, often painful pace, though humor occasionally slips in through the cracks. Coincidentally, the show opened April 14, Good Friday, and will conclude with a matinee on the first Sunday after Easter.
The production – the fourth by the MFA students who began classes at FAU last September and will soon graduate – is definitely their most powerful, holding the rapt attention of a silent audience for a good three hours. Each actor brings a specific talent and perspective to his or her role, adding to the play’s overall impact.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is packed with ironies and twists. The first is a doozy. The title of the play, written by American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and first staged Off-Broadway in 2005, does not refer to Judas Iscariot’s last days on earth, but rather, his time in the netherworld – in Hell, or perhaps, Purgatory.
Scripture has it that Judas, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples, betrayed him to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver. The Romans took Jesus away, tortured and crucified him. In a fit of remorse, Judas tosses the coins away and hangs himself.
The play takes hold of the tale at this point, recasting it as a court trial that judges the ultimate fate of the biblical betrayer (masterfully portrayed by Sean Patrick Gibbons), and even brings Jesus (Abby Nigro) forward to confront Judas in a finale that will most certainly leave watchers spent.
The performance, which plays out in a contemporary courtroom somewhere in Purgatory, features an impatient, temperamental judge (Stephen Kaiser), a timid bailiff (Erin Williams), a prosecutor (Trayven Call) dressed in a shiny blue-green satin suit and a defense attorney (Amanda Corbett) with the polysyllabic name of Fabiana Aziza Cunningham.
Using flashbacks to an imagined childhood, and lawyers who call for the testimonies of such witnesses as Mother Teresa, Caiaphas, St. Monica, Sigmund Freud and even Satan, the play forces the audience to believe that a judgmental tribunal exists somewhere beyond our corporeal lives. And that this tribunal, using the same jury system as we earth-dwelling mortals, will decide if we have forsaken our sins and can be allowed into Heaven.
If a wretch like Judas can get a second chance, why not all of us? Director Kathryn Johnston acknowledges the “divisiveness surrounding religion” these days. “It is hard to escape if you are tuned into mass or social media.” Will religious texts be “twisted by opportunists to be used for their own devices,” she asks.
The play doesn’t answer these or any other specific questions. It seems to dwell in the “what would happen if” realm, leaving us to our own devices.
Both Johnston and the stage manager warn that Guirgis has spiced his production with modern-day profanities, though no one in the opening night audience seemed offended. By using baser language, the director said, characters are more easily seen as imperfect, mortal human beings, giving more plausibility to the play’s themes of despair and forgiveness.
By using a string of witnesses, Guirgis segments this play, giving each performer a stage in a witness box. As a result, Satan (smartly and smoothly acted by Madison Spear), dressed in bright red, but not caricatured, comes across as a savvy, confident soul. When asked if she’s wearing Prada, she wryly comments, “No, Gucci.” She’s a funny devil, no doubt.
Joey De La Rua does a masterful job of portraying Sigmund Freud, even delivering some of the lingo attributed to the “Father of Psychiatry.” He even explains away Judas’ suicide: “Failure of self-preservation must be preceded by failure of the mind.” On the stand, his character gets a little hung up in his own expertise – and De La Rua handles that transition with much skill.
As a witness, Pontius Pilate (Christopher Borger) enters the room as a jive talking, hip-hopping hipster. He accuses the questioners of “talking to them Jews.” In the end, he states: “I did what I had to do to preserve the damn peace. I did my job.”
St. Monica (Rachel Finley) doesn’t even make it to the witness box with her brand of jive talk. She swears and mouths off, and refers to Mary Magdalene (Tara Collandra) as “Mary Mags.”
Call and Corbett carry a lot of angst and no small measure of anger in their portrayals of the lawyers. The characters don’t even like each other. When Call’s character, attorney Yusef El-Fayhoumy, asks his fellow barrister for a pen, she answers: “Only if I can shove it through your eye.”
But there are deeply somber moments. Henrietta Iscariot (Jessica Eaton), mother of Judas, ruefully pleads for her son’s soul.
Nigro’s portrayal of Jesus seems to follow biblical texts as she stresses his gentle soul, his shining visage, his forgiving heart and advocacy for peace.
Gibbons again gives his all in his role as Judas. The actor stays silent during most of the play, yet during that time exudes the horrific sorrow and deep regret the character feels. When he speaks, he does so with rage that threatens to run over, even when addressing Jesus.
In the end, a jury must decide. Does Judas deserve forgiveness?
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays through Sunday at the Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus, 777 Glades Road. Tickets are $20. FAU faculty, staff tickets are $15 and students are $12. To purchase tickets, visit www.fauevents.com or call 1-800-564-9539.