Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT by The Vagabond Theatre Company of Greater Bridgeport
Through March 26th
Courtroom, n. A place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals, with betting odds in favor of Judas.
— H. L. Mencken
Thought-provoking, intense, intellectually stimulating, engrossing. These are just some of the descriptive words that could be ascribed to The Vagabond Theatre Company’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Judas). I can say a lot more and will before this review is finished.
Being the product of a liberal but Jesuit undergraduate education, the play provided a great deal of intellectual fodder (as well as flashbacks to my theology and philosophy classes) that I could appreciate and gnaw upon. Compound this by the fact that I graduated from what is primarily considered a Roman Catholic law school, and it follows a priori that there would be a great deal that I could glean and analyze from a play like this. After all, the play centers on a hypothetical courtroom trial of the guilt or innocence of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Ultimately, however, you do not have to be religious or a lawyer to enjoy Judas, for its universal humanistic themes transcend religion, race, creed, etc.: to wit, greed, guilt, remorse, love, hate and forgiveness – and especially self-forgiveness.
Judas Iscariot is considered the greatest traitor and betrayer this world has ever known. In Dante’s Inferno (which describes an allegorical trip through a layered, nine circles of Hell) there is a place called Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot, the innermost zone of the ninth and final circle of hell. This part contains all of the traitors to their lords and masters. Interestingly, though, Judas does not dwell there. Instead, Judas is condemned to be eternally chewed upon by Satan himself for all of eternity.
Judas was written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and premiered Off-Broadway at The Public Theater. It was directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and featured Eric Bogosian as Satan. (How could a culture vulture like myself miss this version? Thank goodness for VTC’s wonderful production, enabling me to cross it off my bucket list of things to see.)
Using modern metaphor constructs of a subway in Purgatory that shuttles between Heaven or Hell and a courtroom setting, the play delves into the emotional and psychological motivations leading up to Judas’ ultimate act of betrayal. God himself signs a writ (presumably of habeus corpus) to take Judas out of his catatonic state and put him on trial to save his soul. God even gives him a defense lawyer named Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (the product of a defrocked Irish priest and a Romanian Gypsy). Although Judas remains in his self-imposed catatonic state throughout the play and does not participate in his own defense, we are given some of the backstory through flashbacks and a parade of expert witnesses including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Simon the Zealot, Caiaphas the Elder, Pontius Pilate and even Satan himself, referred to as “Lou” by Judge Littleton who presides over the trial.
In the same vein as John Travolta’s portrayal of the Archangel Michael in the film, Michael, none of the heavenly figures are puritanical in thought or deed. Their language is sharp and cutting, to point of being almost obscene at times. Saint Monica drops more F-Bombs and MF-atom bombs than those in John Wayne’s war movies. But it all works. Indeed, the modern adaptation of Judas is like a Hamiltonian theatre technique that teaches history while entertaining at the same time.
Mat Young does a stunning job at directing and pacing this very nuanced and layered piece of theatre that can easily turn into a ponderous pedagogical diatribe in the wrong hands. The cast is superb. Lynette Victoria (who Pillow Talking loved in Educating Rita) was spot on as Judas’ defense attorney, displaying her panoramic range as an actor from one end of the spectrum to the other. Juan Ayala was the perfect foil as Judas’ prosecutor, bringing just the right mix of prosecutorial acumen and syncophantic “suck up” to his character portrayal. John T. Liszewski was excellent in both of his roles as Judge Littleton, the gruff, overworked Judge of Purgatory and Caiaphas the Elder. (If it were not for the beard, I would have thought a different actor played Caiaphas inasmuch as his portrayal was so different.) Ainsley Andrade (who Pillow Talking has followed as an actor in his last five productions) gave another strong performance as Pontious Pilate and Saint Matthew. His hip, smooth delivery and easygoing manner were perfect. Special shout-outs must go to Alynne Miller and Justine Wiesinger who demonstrated their far reaching ranges as actors by playing collectively (Alynne) Gloria/Mary Magdalene/Saint Peter/Matthias of Galilee/Soldier 3 and (Justine) Mother Teresa/St. Thomas/Sigmund Freud/Henrietta Iscariot/Soldier 1. Giovanna Olcese was devilishly charming as Saint Monica and showed her diverse range as an actress by doing a one-eighty doubling as Sister Glenna/Loretta/ and Soldier 2. Patrick Duffy proved he could both act and sing in an intense portrayal of Butch Honeywell, the foreman of the jury.
There were three stand-out performances that must be noted. Even though John R. Smith Jnr. was in a catatonic state through the majority of the play as the main character, Judas Iscariot, his presence was felt throughout primarily as a result of his commanding stage presence. (Pillow Talking has followed John as an actor as well in a number of past performances.) Like Ainsley, John gave yet another strong performance whether catatonic or not. Maggie Pangrazio was MasterCard priceless as the Bailiff and Simon the Zealot. (I wasn’t sure the same person played both of those parts until the curtain call!) As the Bailiff, she was positively hysterical and scene stealing as the lollipop-addicted, devil-fearing, double eye-glass wearing court guard. (She absolutely convinced me that she was really reading that novel while the court antics proceeded – you just have to see her performance to understand.) And last, but certainly not least, was Eric James Dino’s wonderful performance as Satan. Smarmy, disarming with a commanding stage presence all his own, Eric made Satan’s character come to life with an incredibly layered and complex performance. There was a well-defined arc to Satan’s character that by the end of the play, you had to admit he did not seem like a bad chap after all. Watching his performance reminded me of the smarmy but charming portrayal of Satan by Ray Wise in the short-lived but devilishly entertaining TV series Reaper. And I positively loved his heart-shaped tattoo with GOD written through it and a little arrow pointing upwards.
Lord, forgive me if I am a Judas goat, but I must lead you to VTC’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot before the door to Purgatory closes!
I know a fair amount about a lot of things and I know a lot about fewer things, which I guess makes me pretty darn typical; however, sometimes the areas where I’m lacking come back to haunt me. You see, I set about to pen an earnest review of the powerful The Last Days of Judas Escariot written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Mat Young, and performed by the Vagabond Theatre Company of Greater Bridgeport; but as I did, I was attacked by a bit of guilt (I am the product of Catholic and Jewish parents) over my minimal knowledge of the Bible. I wanted to know if I was in good company, after all, I can’t be the only one who knows about little more than Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark and the Flood, can I? So I literally googled “don’t know much about the Bible” – and I immediately came across a humorous book for beginners titled: Don’t Know Much About the Bible: Everything You Need to Know About the Good Book but Never Learned. I wasn’t the only one! Further perusing brought me to an article, “It’s Okay if We Don’t Understand the Whole Bible,” by Wendy Pope, which began with the following: “The LORD our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them.” Deuteronomy 29:29a (NLT). So secret or no secret, I’ll interpret that as there’s plenty in the Bible I’m not accountable to know and I therefore may give myself a pass.
Suffice it to say, I’m not planning a full-on summary of the Bible nor the stories and elements contained within it in this review. I’ll leave that to my Fordham-grad husband who often touts the merits of his Jesuit education (as an aside, I attended a private Lutheran college and did take religion courses, but I digress). Instead I’ll give the abbreviated The Bible for Dummies version (yes, there also is such a book) and focus more on lavishing due praise upon the cast and crew of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
The Warehouse Black Box Theater, temporary home to the wandering “Vagabonds” for this production and their next, Dog Sees God, is the perfect blank slate for this particular type of work, where the audience is intimately seated close to the action and made to feel as if they are actually in the courtroom of “Hope” in the Downtown Purgatory subway station. Accused apostle Judas sits stage right for most of the production, head-hanging and nearly comatose. Vagabond’s Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director John R. Smith, Jnr. is an impeccable Judas; intense at times, yet morose and broken, with shoulders slumped and long-hair shrouding a guilt-ridden face.
The story takes us through the darkly comedic trial of Judas Iscariot, who according to the Bible, famously betrayed Jesus Christ, then hung himself. The play explores Judas’ motives and asks whether he, like all others, can be forgiven by a merciful God, or must he spend eternity in Hell? Punctuating the court scenes are flashbacks to moments in Judas’ life as well as monologues by many who knew him, including the virtuous Mary Magdalene (an excellent Alynne Miller) and the fiery, outspoken Saint Monica (a spirited, on-point, F-bomb-dropping portrayal by Giovanna Olcese). The play opens with Judas’ mother, Henrietta Iscariot (a fabulously powerful performance by Justine Wiesinger), who agonizes over the fact that she’s had to bury her son. Then the trial that almost wasn’t begins after some very fancy footwork by the strong-willed defense attorney and agnostic, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (a flawless Lynette Victoria whom we’ve seen before in Educating Rita at The Ridgefield Theater Barn). Cunningham has had to convince the ornery judge by getting a writ signed by St. Peter and God. Judge Littlefield (the fantastic John T. Liszewski has an incredibly dynamic presence) presides and they are joined by prosecutor Yusef El Fayoumy (a wonderful Juan Ayala). The Dum Dum lollipop-loving, novel-reading Bailiff (played to the hilt by Maggie Pangrazio – I just love her facial expressions!) adds a hefty dose of comic relief as does Butch Honeywell, the foreman of the jury played superbly by Patrick Duffy.
Throughout the trial many witnesses step forward including the hilarious Mother Teresa (also played by Weisinger), The High Priest Caiaphas (also Liszewski), Pontius Pilate (an brilliant performance by Ainsley Andrade), the self-important Sigmund Freud (another comical delivery by Wiesinger – a pop of psychology for me!), and Satan among others. The grandiose and sharp-tongued Satan is a scene-stealer played by a resplendent Eric James Dino, clad in a tan leisure suit and looking every bit like a sleazy, hedonistic pimp. He is slick and sly, and disconcertingly charming all at the same time, but one would expect just that of the Devil himself.
Nearly all of talented cast play multiple roles. Of those not mentioned above, Andrade also plays Saint Matthew; Miller also plays Gloria, Saint Peter, Matthias of Galilee, and Soldier 3; Olcese also plays Sister Glenna, Loretta, and Soldier 2; Pangrazio also plays Simon the Zealot; and Wiesinger also plays St. Thomas and Soldier 1.
The Vagabonds did a wonderful job of evoking the feel of a dim, dark Purgatory and made great use of multi-media projections as well. They impressively bring this rich text to life; and despite being a rather long production, moved well with effective staging and pacing. Shout outs also to the production staff, including Ian Smith as Stage Manager/Production Assistant; John R. Smith, Jnr. and Tanya Feduik-Smith as Producers and Production Designers (along with Mat Young); and Mat Young for video design.
A flamboyant, emotionally-laden piece, with both colorful characters, and sharp, witty, bold dialogue The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is most assuredly a terrific success for this infant troupe. It also proves you don’t always need to know the backstory or to have seen a prequel to enjoy new works. Bravo Vagabond Theatre Company and best wishes for your continued success!