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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Estelle Parsons’ revival of unwieldy and uneven play by Stephen Adly Guirgis with cast of 28 eventually packs quite a wallop, honoring Actors Studio’s 70th.

Michael Billingsley as Jesus of Nazareth and JoAnna Rhinehart as Henrietta Iscariot in a scene from “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (Photo credit: Shashwat Gupta)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Estelle Parsons’ revival of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis now at La MaMa ETC is historic in several ways. First, it is in honor of the Actors Studio’s 70th anniversary. Secondly, it commemorates La MaMa’s 55th year of its founding. In addition, it is the first time this large cast play has been performed with a full complement of 28 actors, rather than double or triple casting as it has been performed in the past. It also represents the first major New York production of a play by Guirgis since he won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Between Riverside and Crazy.

And what of the play which had its world premiere at the Public Theater in 2005? Parsons’ uneven production cannot keep this long play from seeming unwieldy. In fact, using so many actors is almost distracting as some of them are simply walk-ons, and disappear almost immediately. The new production seems less trenchant and more like a vaudeville with its set pieces than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s original staging. Nevertheless, the play still retains a cumulative effect and is ultimately compelling.

Framed as a trial play, it deals with a great many major themes: divine mercy and human retribution, free will and predestination, sin and redemption, love and hate, blame and forgiveness. It contains many theological as well as legal doctrines making this a challenging evening in the theater. Aside from the testimony of witnesses in Judge Littlefield’s court, the play offers flashbacks, statements from the saints in asides not part of the trial, and imagined scenes of childhood and depictions of later events. The language of the play is in the vernacular and street language is its coin of change. This makes the difficult dense material accessible as well as contemporary.

Javier Molina as Satan, Gabriel Furman as Judas, and Michael Billingsley as Jesus of Nazareth in a scene from “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (Photo credit: Shashwat Gupta)

In a night court in Purgatory, Judas Iscariot is put on trial to decide whether he belongs in heaven or hell. Although he betrayed Jesus of Nazareth, he recanted, fell into despair and later hung himself. Since Jesus predicted his betrayal was it predestined or free will? The play is made up of a series of historical witnesses, from Biblical personages like Pontius Pilate, Simon the Zealot, and Caiphus the Elder, to modern celebrities like Mother Theresa and Dr. Sigmund Freud. Leading the defense is Fabiana Aziza Cunningham and for the prosecution, Yousef El-Fayoumi. Along the way Judas’ mother and Satan put in important appearances.

The large cast is successful to varying degrees. Most memorable is the swaggering, arrogant portrayal of Satan by a bravura Javier Molina. He may have the best lines as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he also gives the most full-bodied three-dimensional performance. Count Stovall appears as an avuncular, self-possessed Caiphus the Elder, while LeLand Gantt makes Pontius Pilate a foul-mouthed authoritative figure who seems to be on the defensive during his entire testimony. Among the modern witnesses, Timothy Doyle is a poised, unruffled Sigmund Freud whose answers to questioning holds himself above the fray, while Bob Adrian’s depiction of Mother Theresa is a comic portrait of an elderly, deaf woman. JoAnna Rhinehart makes Henrietta Iscariot, Judas’ mother, a passionate and compassionate woman who had gone through a great deal of suffering and still survived.

As Judas, Gabriel Furman seen as a child in the first act and then as an adult at the end of the second half is an angry young man not in touch with himself. Gabe Fazio’s Simon the Zealot puts in a brief but telling appearance as a thuggish man of forceful power. As the lawyers, the efficient, unflappable Suzanne Di Donna and the sarcastic, colorful Daniel Grimaldi make fascinating adversaries.  Jay Johnston’s Judge Littlefield adds flavor to his character of a dyspeptic authority figure with a short fuse. Michael Billingsley as Jesus puts in a late second appearance as a reticent, forgiving presence.

Gabe Fazio as Simon the Zealot and Jay Johnston as Judge Littlefield in a scene from “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (Photo credit: Shashwat Gupta)

Using a large section of the Ellen Stewart Theatre, Peter Larkin’s setting is a rather shabby courtroom with many unmatched chairs. Court Watson’s costumes range from Biblical to contemporary, from casual jeans and tee-shirts to formal three- piece suits. The lighting by Mike Riggs does not seem to vary much throughout the evening. The exotic-sounding music is provided live by Yukio Tsuji on shakuhachi and percussion.

Parsons’ production is as ramshackle and scattershot as the play which uses all kinds of devices, jokes, off-color language to tell its tale. The large cast varies from the memorable to the simply competent. While The Last Days of Judas Iscariot could use a bit of judicious cutting, its attempt to deal with big concepts ultimately packs quite a wallop.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (through March 26, 2017)

La MaMa ETC

Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212- 352-3101 or visit http://www.lamama.org

Running time: three hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (397 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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