This season that company’s theme has been charismatics. After Tartuffe and a religious hoax yarn, The Cult Play, they conclude with this work that features two charismatics, Jesus and Pilate.
With a contemporary sensibility, Mr. Patrick dramatizes the familiar situations with simplicity, lively dialogue and tasteful irreverence. There is also excessive philosophical speechifying during some long-winded debates but these static Shavian bits are offset by the superior production and strong performances.
“Quiet, Klautus. I’m attempting to listen to my mob,” says Pilate to his young assistant Klautus. John the Baptist, Herod, Herodias and Salome have all recently died in various violent manners and there’s unrest in the streets of Jerusalem. Pilate surveys the chaos from his office high atop the city through binoculars.
Judas is a bright young man being groomed by Pilate for a government position and comes over every afternoon for training. Things are heating up as there’s a new prophet in town who threatens the authority of the Roman occupiers and the Jewish orthodoxy. Judas is charged to find out about him and what he wants. We meet the sensitive Jesus and his loving and bickering parents Mary and Joseph and his good friend Peter. Eventually Jesus winds up in Pilate’s office for a clash of wills.
Patrick’s sly atmosphere is of transactional corporate culture where pragmatism rules and religions are constructs not to be taken too seriously. The severity of Judaism upsets the balance and a presumptive Messiah further leads to conflict. The belief that Jesus’ behavior deliberately set in motion the outcome is espoused because he wouldn’t negotiate.
With actors both stationary and roaming through the theater in concert with the precisely choreographed company onstage, director Craig Smith’s staging exhibits a superb command of stagecraft. Everything flows fluidly and aesthetically. Mr. Smith’s work with the actors is equally as accomplished and his own performance as Pilate is a major highlight.
Recalling the wily Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the limber Smith wearing a mostly white ensemble along with white patent leather shoes physically dominates the presentation. His honeyed, deep growling vocal delivery conveys the cheery steeliness of the character while tossing off witticisms that all get laughs.
Slim, wiry, wound up and with his pleasing tenor voice the animated Josh Tyson’s rich portrayal of Judas captures the complexities of his situation.
The soulful Jeffrey Marc Alkins is a sensitive Jesus. Affable Ariel Estrada’s Peter is a touching figure of vivid warmth. Youthful Josh Moser as the bureaucratic Klautus serves as wonderfully dry comic relief. As the harried and henpecked Joseph, Craig Anthony Bannister with his graceful physical presence fills the role with humor and sadness. Jim Sterling’s turn as Herod is appropriately of zany desperation.
“A Galilean housewife” is how Patrick describes Mary and that exactly how the commanding Elise Stone comes across with her engaging portrait of maternal devotion. With her wide-eyed facial expressions and soaring tones, Ms. Stone majestically realizes pathos and comedy.
A steel desk, a small steel bench and two lattice steel cubes are the spare furnishings on scenic designer Juan Merchan’s airy gray set that starkly serves as the office and other locales. Mr. Merchan’s bracing lighting design is prevalent with strategic shadows.
On the back and side walls are periodically displayed video/projection designer Attilio Rigotti’s dazzling imagery that perfectly complements the actions. There’s marvelous footage of present day Jerusalem, buildings, clouds trees, fractured views of crowds and stars.
Composer Ellen Mandel’s melodically intense electronic score is adeptly rendered by her sound design as are other effects.
An array of modern garments is tweaked by costume designer Debbi Hobson to craft the suggestion of long ago and far away.
Robert Patrick was born in 1937 in Texas and came to New York City in 1961. Patrick became part of the groundbreaking Off-Off Broadway theater scene at the Caffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffee house. Judas is reckoned to be among the best of his over 60 plays. This excellent production of it confirms its stature and burnishes his reputation as a major dramatist.
Judas (through May 13, 2018)
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission