Expectations Be Damned

Easy answers are nowhere to be found in Stark Naked's provocative play

I am happy to report that my expectations had been dashed by the time I staggered out of Stark Naked Productions' three-hour mounting of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. This is only Stark Naked's second show, I hadn't seen the first, and although I knew producer-director Eugenia Woods to be experienced and sincere, I figured this would be a worthy but not entirely successful effort with a large and therefore necessarily uneven cast. And the play? A trial in Purgatory to decide if Judas really deserves to rot in hell for betraying Jesus and then hanging himself, with witnesses including Satan, Freud and Mother Teresa, plus a cameo by Saint Monica, a jive-talkin' momma whose favorite word is "motherfucker"? Obviously, we were in for an irreligious farce.

I was wrong, wrong, all wrong. Not about Eugenia Woods being experienced and sincere; that's what enabled her to assemble a strong, well-directed cast and put on a show of very good production values. This is not some well-meaning, amateurish Easter pageant; it's a skilled presentation of a serious play.

Oh, yes, the script ... I was wrong about that, too. Sure, it has plenty of jokes and funny anachronisms and exaggerated characters--Pontius Pilate is like a gangsta rapper, and Satan, expertly played by Paul Clinco, comes off like an oily Mob nightclub owner. But in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis asks serious questions about free will and God's forgiveness, and he doesn't foist any easy answers upon us.

Judas' motives in turning Jesus over to the authorities have never been clear; even the gospels contradict each other on this point (among many others). The Gospel According to (note: not by) Matthew attributes the action to greed. Luke claims that Satan (evil) entered Judas--the devil made him do it. Mark dodges the question. John implies that Jesus was somehow in on it, telling Judas to do what he had to do. The recently discovered Gospel of Judas--written by one of that disciple's followers a couple of generations after the events in question--declares that Jesus ordered Judas to turn him in, for reasons touched on by one of the characters in this play. If even holy writ can't produce a coherent account, no wonder Guirgis couldn't resist turning the whole thing into a courtroom comedy-drama.

We understand that Judas Iscariot is no mere farce from the very first scene, a monologue by Judas' mother (a heartfelt performance by Amzell Magaletti). OK, Guirgis calls her Henrietta, never a common name in the Holy Land, but she speaks of the loss of her son with an honest depth of emotion. Soon the action moves to Purgatory, where souls wait a very long time to be assigned a spot in either Heaven or Hell. Judge Littlefield, a Southern-fried character who hanged himself during the Civil War, reluctantly presides over a trial to decide Judas' fate. Dave Sewell plays him for laughs withoug going all Foghorn Leghorn on us. The defense attorney (the versatile Veronica Blanco) is a beautiful, impassioned illegitimate daughter of a priest with issues of her own; the sycophantic prosecutor, one Yusef El-Fayoumy (the hilarious Eric Schumacher), is not a Muslim but a Coptic Christian mistakenly detained in Purgatory as a result of the recent Americanization of the afterlife.

Judas (Tim Koch) can't be called to the stand in his own defense; he's depressed and catatonic. So instead we hear from a variety of witnesses, likely and otherwise, most of whose positions are shown to be inconsistent during cross-examination, even though none of them are lying--not even Satan, who claims to be interested in the truth, rather than the good and bad.

As in medieval mystery and miracle plays, most of these characters are made contemporary with the audience. Disciple Simon the Zealot (Tony Eckstat), talking about the Last Supper, explains, "Jesus was like, 'I'm gonna die soon, so let's just chill.'" Satan describes himself as "just a fallen angel trying to keep my dick hard in a monotheistic society." And then there's the potty-mouthed Saint Monica; as played by To-ree-nee Wolf McArdle, she nearly steals the whole show, even though she has only one brief scene.

Aside from the Saint Monica bit, Guirgis made a mistake cluttering the script with interludes that feature various saints and disciples talking about how they knew Jesus before he was a superstar. The play drags on nearly as long as the Saddam Hussein trial, and it would convey its messages just as well without those interruptions.

In general, Guirgis assaults us with just too many characters who are allowed too little development. That's a problem with the courtroom contrivance: Witnesses are who they are, and can't be expected to grow in the limited time they're on the stand. To his credit, Guirgis does tease out their complications; this is especially important in the case of Caiaphas the Elder (played with noble indignation by David Swisher), who has to explain his role in delivering Jesus to the Romans while protesting the unfairness of the age-old charge that the Jews killed Jesus.

Guirgas is taking on some meaty issues here and refuses to indulge in pat Sunday-school justifications for anything. He questions Christian contradictions, but he doesn't mock Christianity. He isn't pandering to us atheists, either. When he finally brings Jesus onstage, he treats him seriously, and has him participate in a lovely, silent image at the end of the play.

Last week, the insufferable bullies of the Catholic League got Cosimo Cavallaro's perfectly honorable sculpture "Sweet Jesus," full of chocolatey goodness, removed from display in New York. I doubt they would have a taste for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, either. Most other people, believers and non, should find the play provocative in only the most positive, constructive sense. And it sure beats the hell out of the usual Easter pageant.

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