‘If my son is in Hell, then there is no Heaven, because if my son sits in Hell, then there is no God.”
So states Judas’ grief-stricken mother Henrietta Iscariot in the opening moments of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ rich and rambling poem of a play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, currently on stage at Santa Rosa Junior College. Henrietta’s fiery words sum up the powerful central question of Guirgis’ play: How can a just and supposedly forgiving God punish those who, if everything on earth happens according to His plan, are only doing what they were created to do? That question is answered many different ways in the play, but is most succinctly summed up early on when one defender simply suggests, “Judas got fucked.”
In a spirited production by director Laura Downing-Lee, the students of the school’s respected theater arts program have clearly been energized by the ferocious intelligence and boldness of Guirgis’ controversial 2005 fantasia on justice and forgiveness. In it, Judas is granted a retrial in Purgatory, and a parade of characters from the Bible and world history–Pontius Pilate, Simon the Zealot, Satan, Mother Theresa, Sigmund Freud–appear to either defend or damn the man who, one night in the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayed Jesus with the world’s most infamous kiss.
Rarely do students have such fresh material to work with (the play debuted in New York only last April), and the large cast meets the opportunity with palpable enthusiasm and furious energy, even if the pacing and the volume–some actors are a bit too soft-spoken to hear–are occasionally a bit off and the play is a bit over long.
Few bad guys in the history of the world carry the stench of wickedness and treachery that cling to the name and fate of poor, damned Judas Iscariot. Depending on whose version you listen to–even the Gospels can’t agree on the details–Judas was either misguided, evil, angry or avaricious, betraying his master for that legendary bag of silver coins. Over the centuries, volumes have been written about Judas; he has been used as everything from a justification for the persecution of Jews to a scary cautionary tale to a symbol of youthful rebellion in an oppressive society. In plays like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Judas becomes the tragic fall guy in Jesus’ plan to sacrifice himself, a faithful friend willing to endure eternal infamy in order to fulfill his best friend’s wishes, the patron saint of difficult choices.
In the dramatically hyperactive mind of Guirgis (Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), it is suggested that Judas was merely misguided, believing that Jesus, messiah-like, would kick-start the revolution once the guards came to get him. Another theory posited is that Judas was mentally ill, leading Freud, when called as a character witness, to observe, “Any God who punishes the mentally ill is not worth worshipping.”
Throughout the play, Judas (played with heartbreaking despair by Daniel Thompson) is mostly catatonic, primarily speaking in flashbacks until a climactic debate with Jesus (Jess Camacho), who powerfully suggests that Judas is, in fact, in Heaven, but unable to believe it because of the depths of his own guilt and anguish.
The bulk of the play is Judas’ trial. His defense attorney is Fabiana Cunningham (Tessa Rissacher), an agnostic resident of Downtown Purgatory with her own issues around betrayal; the prosecuting attorney is the desperately social-climbing Yusef El-Fayoumy (a hilarious performance by Khalid Shayota). Other strong performances are given by Kevin Kieta, charmingly slimy as the straight-shooting Satan, a riveting Daniela Herman as both Mother Teresa and Mary Magdalene, a gleefully profane Mercedes Murphy as the potty-mouthed Saint Monica and a superbly confident Nathan Todhunter as the arrogantly bullying Pontius Pilate. As Henrietta, Ernie Schumacher’s quiet presence is moving.
In the end, what Purgatory’s jury decides about Judas’ guilt or innocence is beside the point. As illustrated by the concluding monologue by jury foreman Butch Honeywell (Matt Cadigan), we are all Judas and, ultimately, our salvation begins or ends with our own ability, or inability, to truly and lovingly forgive ourselves.
‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ runs Wednesday-Sunday, Oct. 11-14, at 8pm; also Oct. 14-15 at 2pm. Burbank Auditorium, SRJC, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Contains very strong language and adult subject matter. $8-$15. 707.527.4343.
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