The stage comedy The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a courtroom trial of Jesus’ betrayer – a raucous attempt at exonerating Judas set in a Purgatory populated by foul-mouthed, hip-hop gangstas and what seems like escapees from the TV show, My Name is Earl. Last Days represents the first days of the Risk Theater Initiative in its new space, a converted garage on Ross Avenue, and for the most part, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play is a fairly heavenly fit – an irreverent if ragged vaudeville about redemption and despair, about God’s infinite forgiveness and the human capacity for the unforgivable.
The play has its troubles. At close to three hours, it’s 20 minutes too long. And at the start, Guirgis’s version of the afterlife is confusing: Everyone here is already in Purgatory; they have no need of being judged. So who is this bellowing magistrate with the Georgia accent, played by R. Bruce Elliott?
We never get a clear-cut answer. But as a perky blond angel who bums cigarettes off the recently deceased explains, we’re in a corner of Purgatory called Hope. So apparently, normal rules don’t apply, and we should simply grant the play its comic set-up. Or, as the judge tells his dim bailiff, “The day I show up in court dressed like Ethel Merman, that’ll be the sign I want your opinion.”
It’s worth going along with all this because we get to meet Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa and Satan himself. They’re all called to testify by either the defense attorney, a smart, bitter young feminist, or the prosecutor, who keeps hitting on the defense and kowtowing shamelessly to everyone else. But for all its outrageous humor, Guirgis’ play actually lays out several thorny issues of responsibility and Biblical history: the possible extent of collusion, for instance, between the Roman authorities and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ trial. And in Judas, we see not a man motivated by greed for 30 pieces of silver but an idealist who has turned his sense of justice against himself so much so he feels he’s worthless, he doesn’t deserve any love – even God’s.
Directed by Thomas Parr IV, Last Days entertains enough to overcome a pointlessly complicated set. The production’s chief asset is its very game cast. It would be good if the actors didn’t hit the same emotional notes all the time, the characters are cartoony enough as it is. But the actors bring the energy and commitment to keep this Purgatory percolating.
It’s William Penn who stands out here, shifting gears between playing Satan as a smiling, menacing pimp and Pontius Pilate as a hard-nosed military man irked at having his golf game interrupted. Both are very different roles, yet Penn dominates the courtroom in either one.
American playwrights generally don’t concern themselves with something as immaterial yet weighty as the afterlife. But playwright Guirgis has been taking street-smart looks at spiritual issues since his play Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train seven years ago. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot may be the funniest American drama to peek past the pearly gates since 1972 when Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath envisioned God as a Puerto Rican towel boy.
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