You know you have a thriving theater community when you can see a play about Jesus performed in a church sanctuary in December and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Christmas. Given the timing, an uninitiated audience might reasonably expect a production entitled The Last Days of Judas Iscariot to be either a veneration of the Christ-child or a stroke of seasonal sacrilege. Stage of Fools’ new mounting of Stephen Aldy Guirgis’s off-Broadway hit is neither of those things, but it certainly is a lot of things - possibly too many, but I’m not sure that "too many" is negative.
The play’s basic conceit is fairly simple: in some manner of purgatorial court where the damned are allowed to appeal their eternal sentences, a defense attorney attempts to get a reconsideration for noted Jesus-betrayer Judas Iscariot. Once the setting and core characters have been established, the production consists mostly of witness testimony and cross-examinations, with occasional flashbacks to the corporeal lives of Judas and some of the tertiary players. It’s a very talky show, in other words--again--not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It’s also a show uniquely suited to a venue that used to be a church, and not just because of its subject matter. This was my first time visiting Art House North, housed in a century-old church building in Saint Paul’s West 7th neighborhood. I expected the performance space to reflect the venue’s history, updated with an artsy vibe to reflect its current function. But nope, turns out it still looks a lot like a church, complete with rows of wooden pews, a small, elevated stage and a cozy foyer for refreshments.
Take me to church
That arrangement couldn’t serve The Last Days of Judas Iscariot much better. While the play is technically more a courtroom drama than a sermon, it’s hard not to feel an extra layer of import when you’re physically immersed in a house of the religion whose roots it explores. As someone who logged a lot of hours in church pews in the first half of my life, hearing the story of Judas unfold from a dozen different angles in a setting like this was both eerily familiar and strangely incongruous. Considering that Alex Goebel’s director’s notes state that “this play will try to convert you as much as it tries to make you question everything you know,” that effect seems right on point.
On a somewhat less lofty note, church pews haven’t gotten any more comfortable in the past two decades, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs nearly three hours including intermission. Physical discomfort is no problem as long as the show is engaging enough to keep me focused (heck, my favorite shows of the past couple of years have taken place in a sweltering kitchen and a chilly garage), and Judas mostly hits that mark, thanks largely to an exceptional cast. A script this heavy on philosophically pregnant speechifying could easily come off flat and pretentious in the hands of actors less adept at mining its nuances.
Meet the players
Fortunately, Stage of Fools has assembled a cast capable of both owning this dialogue and drawing maximum effect from minimal physicality. Kate Zehr gets maybe the toughest assignment as the defense attorney who sets the story in motion. She’s a character tough enough to publicly second-guess God but fragile enough to be broken down by Satan, and also an audience surrogate who’s actively challenging the presumed beliefs of at least some of the audience.
Zehr pulls it off with a controlled, compelling performance that leavens the outsized characters surrounding her. The biggest of those is, unsurprisingly, Satan, played by Corey Boe as a swaggering, charming bro who’s as volatile in private as he is magnetic in public. It’s the type of role that could tip over into cartoonish in the wrong hands, but Boe gives Lucifer a grounded grace that lets us believe him when he says he’s not the real bad guy here.
That theme keeps coming back throughout the show: nobody’s the real bad guy, not Gregory Adam’s smarmy, obsequious prosecutor; not Jonathan Dull’s thundering, racist alpha male Pontius Pilate; not Kayla Cooper’s timorous, doubtful Thomas. Maybe not even Paul LaNave’s conflicted, complicated Judas, who cuts an oddly compelling figure even as he spends most of his eponymous play slumped at the front of the stage, staring catatonically through barely opened eyes. And certainly not Jesus, who’s pointedly given one of the play’s smaller roles. That tertiary status allows Ricardo Beaird to make the most of his stage time as a soft-spoken, sympathetic Christ who radiates calm in each brief appearance.
That isn’t to say everything about this Judas works. In a three-hour play already overbrimming with ideas and characters, several tertiary storylines feel unnecessary. The celebrity cameos by Sigmund Freud and Mother Theresa seem both out of place and on the nose, a failing I’m inclined to pin on Guirgis trying to do too much with his script. The play’s repetitive structure isn’t a problem as long as the dialogue is crackling, but several of the less engaging testimonies made me acutely aware of the wooden pew digging into my back. And while the handling of the Judas story should prove thought-provoking for a wide range of audiences, I have to think the impact will be considerably lessened if you’re not familiar with the source material.
All told, Stage of Fools has put together a fascinating piece of theater, a morality play that seldom moralizes, buoyed by a capable cast and an unlikely yet ideal venue. It has some ragged edges to be sure, but as the play makes a point of asking, who among us doesn’t?
Well, OK, maybe that one guy...