SPINE: Theatre, History & Culture in the Belly of the Beast: ‘The Last Days of Judas, Jesus, Justice, and the Born Again?’

“When will the cold Christ

Quit breathing twice”

Robert Hazel, American Poet

Apparently never, or at least not until a new god, Christ’s child perhaps, takes his place on Mount New York City.

Until then Jesus, the man-god, and Satan, the falling angel, will remain the central mythology of contemporary America. Christianity, or the concept it represents—a fundamental rebirth of being—occupies our imaginations the way sex does our advertising.

Eric Porter and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Eric Porter and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

In Forum Theatre’s born again production of its 2008 success story, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis—think Motherfucker with the Hat—we can contemplate, marvel at, laugh with, become enchanted by all the possibilities that Christ and his betrayer provoke.

Did Satan make Judas do it? Or did cold hard silver in the palm of his hand turn devout believer into sellout? Did the revolutionary impulse lead Judas to force Christ’s hand? Or did Judas, as recent lost manuscripts suggest, painfully do what his beloved Jesus asked him to do: betray him to the authorities so that he could die and rise again (actually, this last possibilities was not in the script but in my head as I watched this well-done phantasmagoria of a production).

To be sure, the script’s fierce concatenation of Christian Mythology and Urban Legend keeps the audience engaged and atwitter even as an audience member or two ponders the significance of what does it really mean to have a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate, leader of the occupation forces, strut the stage flashing all the makings of a Latin Drug Kingpin as he defends his choice to put the Jewish Jesus to death. With Roman and Latin being the only most obvious connection, meaning probably remains as personal to Guirgis as is the mother-turned-angel that opens the show; but in the realm of surreal hallucinations such bizarre associations are nothing more than commonplace.

Heartening back to Dante’s Comedy, in which a three-headed Satan stands at Hell’s ground zero buried up to his waist in ice with Judas Iscariot shoved into one of his mouths only to be chewed and clawed for all eternity, Last Days takes us into the courtroom to witness the trial of the near comatose Judas (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). His defense attorney is the “strikingly beautiful” Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner). She and prosecutor, the slimy Yusef El-Fayoumy (Scott McCormick), plead their cases to a ferocious southern confederate, Judge Littlefield (Brian Hemmingsen).

As one can see, Last Days is a cultural, intellectual smorgasbord spread out like an Easter buffet before a hungry reunion of ressurectionists. One can enjoy the characters, an energized collection of urban stereotypes aka historically Catholic icons, from the previously mentioned Pontius Pilate as drug lord (Frank Britton) to a “sizzling hot, yet nagging momma” Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine (Alina Collins Maldonado) to Simon the Zealot, a street intellectual revolutionary disciple (Thony Mena). A blood moneyed Mother Teresa (Nora Achrati) even makes a visit to testify against Judas as does the decidedly non-Christian Sigmond Freud (Jesse Terrill), who offers his audience the psychotic defense.

Though some of the characters simply entertain and delight, many introduce important theological or psychological arguments related to forgiveness and free choice and responsibility for life’s failings or—more specifically—for Christ’s suffering. These topics are not unified behind a single thesis but rather presented to the audience like chocolates in an Easter Sampler. Audience members are free to choose which topics appeal to them and chew those ideas for as long as their mouths water and taste buds spasm.

If you would like the “Mel Gibson” special, you can chew on the traditional dispute between who should be assessed blame for Christ’s suffering.  Is the despairing Judas really responsible, even though he attempted to give the money back and apologize? Or is Pilate to blame, even though he washed his hands of the whole affair: Jesus did not behave like your normal Messiah wannabe, but more like that Greek man-god, rebirthing specialist Dionysus, and we all know what kind of havoc he can reek on those authorities that screw with him.  Or maybe it is all that Jewish patriarch Caiaphas the Elder’s fault (Brian Hemmingsen–yes, many actors play multiple roles)? After all, Jesus was a Jew and he was raising holy hell within the Jewish hierarchy at the time.

Julie Garner, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Brian Hemmingsen, and Scott McCormick. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Julie Garner, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Brian Hemmingsen, and Scott McCormick. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Fortunately, that tangent of an argument, as stirred up by defense attorney Cunningham, does not dominate the proceedings.

Of course, the real show stopper is put forth by that most show stopping of characters, the one and only Satan (Jim Jorgensen). As the one character on the stage that needs to be conjured into existence, given his non-human status, Satan wows us with his non-sequiturs even as he displays his complete lack of familiarity with the accused. Yes, remarkably, Satan does not know Judas. In fact, one gets the impression that Satan does not know most sinners, for as he most wonderfully proclaims to a distraught Cunningham near play’s end, he does not have to do very much to get people to sin, be it to betray or backstab or bribe or sellout.

And that in the end is what these Last Days are about: how easy and commonplace such human failings are. Thus, the need for forgiveness, if not in the form of Jesus, then at least as your average Red Cross worker (Patrick Bussink)

Of particular significance to this production is the reemergence of the image of the humble Christian, as represented by Pope Francis.  If he can kneel on one knee and bath the feet of a criminal, then why can’t we forgive even the most horrendous of sinners? This trial of Judas may lack the seriousness of the trial of Hercules, but its lead character’s central despair is no less pronounced. Nor is that most human of yearning: the need for forgiveness, both of the accused and from the victims. And, if that’s the case, these Last Days are not.

Kecia Campbell, Scott McCormick, Frank B. Moorman, Annie Houston,Jessie Terrill, Frank Britton, and Nora Achrati. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Kecia Campbell, Scott McCormick, Frank B. Moorman, Annie Houston,Jessie Terrill, Frank Britton, and Nora Achrati. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Through Forum Theatre’s new Forum for All initiative, all walk up tickets are Pay-What-You-Want, and such an offer to see this ‘kick in the pants’ show is one choice that doesn’t need to be questioned or debated.

Running Time: Three hours, with one 15 minute intermission.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays through June 14, 2013 at Forum Theatre performing at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

Review by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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