Entertainment » Theatre

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 11, 2017
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

According to director David Belew, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is a play about hope. Indeed, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis sets the 2005 play in the Courtroom of Hope, Purgatory, in the "unspecified present." In the spirit of John Gardner's "Grendel" (or perhaps Pär Lagerkvist's "Barabbas"), it would seem that a work with a title character so instantly recognizable and theme so timeless couldn't help but succeed.

Unfortunately, despite an overall strong cast and interesting use of space by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, the play, with its disjointed cast of characters and pastiche of overly long monologues, flashbacks, and aimless courtroom scenes, wears out its welcome long before the two-hour and 40-minute run time.

The work opens with a monologue by Judas's mother, Henrietta, whose argument in favor of her son is not related in any obvious way to the mechanics of the courtroom case, though she later testifies. Similar monologues by one member of the jury and St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine, are interesting as pieces on their own (more thanks to the actors than to the material), but they tug at the edges of an already problematically loose, repetitive narrative structure.

Although various flashbacks, conversations, and dramatic re-enactments are more engaging than the monologues, these also vie for focus. Still, there seems an obvious point to the insights of Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthew and others offer insights into both Judas and the dynamics of life as apostles of Christ.

In contrast, the logic of the court case is never clear. The judge is a Confederate soldier whose hostility toward Judas seems entirely generic and impersonal. (If the actor's double casting as Caiaphas -- common, but not dictated by the script it seems -- is intended to enlighten, it doesn't.) Similarly, El Fayoumy, who argues ferociously and flamboyantly against Judas has no obvious motive beyond his own recreation.

Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, the attorney bringing the case on behalf of a catatonic Judas, is the most distinct character in the play and by far the most interesting. Apparently determined to frustrate, though, Guirgis gives the audience access to her and her story only at long intervals interrupted by drawn-out testimony ranging from individuals relevant to the case, such as Pontius Pilate and Satan himself, to Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud.

Adding insult to injury, Guirgis subjects Cunningham to seemingly gratuitous misogyny and sexual harassment from the other characters at fairly regular intervals and removes her entirely from the play's resolution as a hapless male juror we've hardly been introduced to unloads his own emotional baggage onto Judas and Christ decides the issue of forgiveness by washing Judas's feet.

For all the play's considerable shortcomings, the production has its enjoyable elements. Scenic designer Jeremy Hollis sets the scene on a precariously raked stage that sits at an angle to the black box theater, preventing any real feeling of rest. Upstage right, a slightly raised platform backed by cloudy-glass panels suggests a greenhouse, but also the bell jar where Judas waits out eternity for most of the play.

Rising around and behind the stage, walls made of weathered slats suggest that the proceedings take place in some forgotten corner of eternity, a feeling heightened by vines twisting in and out of view and the occasional blossom penetrating the cracks of this particular corner of Purgatory.

Belew uses the front row of the audience and exits from the theater at stage right and left, as well as the back of the house to accommodate actors. This enhances the claustrophobic feeling, which is effective but also embroils the audience in the court proceedings, which leaves the monologues and re-enactments taking place in some in-between time and place that doesn't read as deliberate.

Especially awkward is a video recreation of Pilate and his soldiers abusing Judas, which is projected onto a sheet upstage left. Throughout, Rachel Lake's lighting design and L.J. Luthringer's sound design struggle valiantly (and succeed much of the time) to impart cohesion.

Of the cast, Julie Partyka is excellent as Cunningham. Although the play engages in sloppy stop and go philosophy, Partyka maintains her character's laser focus on the issues of hope, despair, and meaning.

Michael Woods is also compelling as Satan, though the logic of the character's coming and going, like so much else in the play, is unclear. As Judas, Alexander Utz weathers the task of playing catatonic for two hours and still succeeds in the play's final scene. Although Utz and Wood have solid chemistry, their re-enactment of a drunken scene in a bar simply hammers away at the question of temptation versus banal, innate evil too long and too repetitively.

In the supporting cast, Andrew J. Pond is rather one-note as Judge Littlefield, but his performance as Caiaphas is far more layered and interesting, suggesting direction might be at fault. Tamara Heath and Amber Sallis deliver their monologues as Gloria the Juror and St. Monica, respectively, with energy that's a welcome relief from the rest of the play's pace. Heath is also good as Mother Teresa, even if the rationale behind the character's appearance here remains a mystery.

Similarly, Aaron Lockman is good as both Freud and St. Peter, though both characters don't seem equally vital to the plot. Andy Blaustein does a respectable job with St. Matthew and Butch Honeywell, though the final monologue of this juror makes for an odd, protracted denouement.

George Stallings' Huggy Bear-reminiscent Pontius Pilate lights a fire under the courtroom action, providing a much-needed launching point for the peak of Partyka's character arc. Ian Deanes provides some welcome threads of continuity as the long-suffering Bailiff and does equally good work as Simon the Zealot.

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" runs through October 29 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-935-6875 or visit www.Eclectic-Theatre.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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