Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” takes place in a present day courtroom in a corner of Purgatory called Hope. The case is God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth vs. Judas Iscariot. Most of us should be familiar with this story from the New Testament; Judas was one of the twelve original apostles of Jesus. He is best known for his betrayal of Jesus by aiding in his capture and delivery to the Sanhedrin priests in exchange for a payment of 30 silver coins (about what an average citizen could earn in 16 weeks at that time). His name is synonymous with Benedict Arnold and often used as a label to accuse someone of betrayal. It is believed that soon after Judas’ betrayal he committed suicide by hanging, out of guilt and remorse. Although the Catholic Church has never declared that Judas is in hell for these acts many Christians believe that he must be, which takes us to the opening dialogue of the play.
Henrietta Iscariot and mother of Judas, played by Tiffany Greathouse introduces us to her thoughts on hell and her son’s apparent fate. She says: “The world tells me that God is in heaven and my son is in hell. I tell the world the one true thing I know: If my son is in hell, then there is no heaven – because if my son sits in hell, there is no God.” The show started a few minutes early so I only caught these last few sentences of this monologue. Greathouse delivered this well and effectively conveyed the emotion that a grieving mother would have. Henrietta does not have much stage time she would come back for a few moments later in the play so if it was not for this moment the character would be somewhat unmemorable. Greathouse understands this and took the opportunity to grab our attention early on and set the tone that we should be sympathetic to Judas and his fate.
Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, played by Ana Lemke, is an agnostic defense attorney who obtains a writ from Saint Peter, played by Jenna Hawkins to appeal Judas’ condemnation. Judge Littlefield played by W. Lee Daily dismisses the writ with a large amount of prejudice as he wants nothing to do with Judas and believes he is where he belongs. I loved Daily’s portrayal of the judge throughout this production; I found it witty, funny and above all believable. Rage and hatred are very hard emotions to conjure up on cue and in a believable manner and have them be measured enough to not send the whole scene sideways. Daily struck this balance perfectly and fortunately, even though he came very close, I don’t think he actually spit on any of the other actors.
Through the help of Saint Monica, played by Paris Hawkins, eventually Cunningham gets another writ this time from God himself, who she is not sure she believes in. Saint Monica shows us very quickly that this show is going to be a comedic drama and one with some strong language. Hawkins does a fantastic job in the role, her characters moments on the stage are meant to make sure we all get what is going on with some very light and colorful narration. Hawkins understands that and that is exactly what she brought to the character.
Now that the trial can move forward Hell, of course, sends up a prosecutor. Yusef El-Fayoumy, played by Eric Leckman. Leckmans portrayal of El-Fayoumy and Lemke’s portrayal of Cunningham was spot on for playing the part of lawyers. There were both clearly working within a framework and neither of them stepped out of that framework. Playing a character that has to act in a professional manner can be difficult has you have to contain your desire to perform if you put too much into the character of a professional lawyer then you could be seen as over-acting. However I did not get that impression from either of these two at any time during the performance. Both of these characters clearly have their own agenda, as they want to win. Cunningham holds the very nature of the trial in contempt and knows that she is appearing before a judge who was forced to hear the case and is prejudicial to her defendant. El-Fayoumy is a typical apple-polish lawyer and takes every opportunity throughout the proceedings to curry favor with the judge, the kind of lawyer you would expect Hell to have in ample supply.
Throughout the course of the trial we hear from some interesting and notable witnesses: Sigmund Freud played by Daniel Ryan Romero; Simon the Zealot, played by Sam McGinnis; Caiaphas The Elder, played by Matthew Mark Macey; Mother Teresa, played by Natalie Keezer; Pontius Pilate, played by Chris Harvey and Satan, played by William Cooper Howell. All of the actors throughout the trail did a tremendous job; they made the characters very believable. Some standouts were the likeness and accent of Romero as Freud, the accent and mannerisms of Keezer as Mother Theresa and the pompousness and God-Father like portrayal of Pilate by Harvey.
I also enjoyed the dynamic that Jenna Hawkins brought to Matthias of Gailiee and Saint Peter, she had to very quickly switch gears from a young boy to Peter the Fisherman and she did this very well. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Steiner’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene and Sister Glenna she and Hawkins as Saint Monica were a great paring and Sister Glenna gave us a very nice comedic moment after a well delivered monologue was apparently not heard and she was asked to repeat it. William Cooper Howell’s portray of Satan seemed a little over-the-top. Satan is portrayed as a pompous and slimy character that everyone just seems to tolerate and wishes he would go away as soon as possible. That part came across just fine but I felt that some of Howell’s facial expressions and elongated words were a bit overdone. Also his flirting with female audience members was rather undersold, it seemed very artificial.
Special mention should be given to both Judas Iscariot played by Nick Diaz and Jesus of Nazareth played by Brandon Pearson. Pearson has a very genuine, reserved, humble and gentle nature in the way that he portrayed Jesus which I think is exactly the way we all want to see that character played. Nick Diaz’s portrayal of Judas Iscariot was flawless there are so many dynamics to this character, at times he has to be near catatonic, catatonic, normal, angry, confused and in great despair. Diaz plays every range of emotion perfectly; he is obviously a very accomplished actor and a perfect choice for this role. Foreman of the jury Butch Honeywell played by Jared Greathouse delivered a wonderful monologue which are the last spoken words of the play and as simple of a man as he is supposed to be he masterfully delivers a very powerful lesson to Judas.
Logistically the show was near flawless I was a bit distracted by a large amount of noise coming from somewhere backstage during the middle of Act II but I have seen shows in this theater before and similar events have happened so it might just be noise from the adjoining auditorium or some other mechanical issue with the theater. Backstage and on set the movement of actors were almost unnoticeable and there were many times when a light would come up on the section of the stage and I had no idea anyone was there, exactly as it should be.
The set design by Lucas Bybee was simple but effective since we are told that Hope is a corner of Purgatory (aka New York City.) I did especially like some of the graffiti on the walls such as “Satin is my Homie.” Costumes by Michael Nielsen and Al Miller seemed appropriate for the setting and the characters. Lighting Design by Danny Dunn was simple but effective, I could see everything that I was supposed too; Sound Design by George Plautz was also effective no issues hearing and no feedback. From a technical side the show was flawless.
Director Lucas Bybee states in his directors notes “…I never really planed on directing this show but alas, this play by Stephen Adly Guirgis is simply too good not to do. It’s immensely challenging but as Theatre Artists, we owe it to ourselves to do the work that challenges us…” I agree this show is too good not to do and done so well that it is too good not to go see. It is on the longer side and Act II is longer then Act I which may make you think the show is longer then it really is but while some may be challenged with their part they are not challenged in their performance. As long as you are ok with a frank and light-hearted look at a well know Bible Story with some “real emotion” and stronger language mixed in you should definitely see this show.
Wasatch Theater Company’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” performs May 1 – 17 Thursday’s, Friday’s and Saturday’s at 8:00 pm with Matinee performances on Saturday May 10 and 17 at 2pm in The Studio Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Art’s Center, 138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $15 and available at www.arttix.org or by calling 801-355-2787. Running time: Approx. 2 hours 30 minutes, 15 minute intermission.