The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Kevin Christopher Cox

At the Gift Theatre in Chicago
A review of the performance on Apr. 19, 2008

How can the acting be superb if the script is weak? After all, isn't a script the blueprint that the actors elaborate? And without that blueprint, aren't they just improvising? In Gift Theatre's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, most of the players delivered splendid performances, and they did so largely because of their own talent and because of the richness of their characters.

The play's premise is fascinating and flush with possibilities. Judas Iscariot is on trial in Purgatory for betraying Jesus. In a courtroom setting, complete with judge, jury, bailiff, prosecutor, and defense attorney, we watch a series of witnesses testify for or against Judas, while answering for their own choices in life. The witnesses are biblical personages, Satan included, and prominent historical figures selected from both the recent and distant past. Using the story as a platform for raising some consequential issues that cover theology, psychology, and ethics, author Stephen Adly Guirgis unfortunately doesn't fulfill the promise.

Those splendid performances came despite a problematic script, one that relies heavily on crudeness and vulgarity, which most people euphemistically call "urban slang", to win cheap laughs and create a self-important iconoclasm. Consequently, the dialogue level was often insultingly low, as though Guirgis views monosyllabic screaming as the best vehicle for emotional candor.

The second irritation in the script was its discontinuity. I'm speaking here not of sudden changes in time or place, or of nonlinearity in the story, but rather of awkward abortions of what might have proven to be fruitful or character-developing moments rooted in the weighty issues that Guirgis raises. Several delicious questions evanesced as fast as they materialized. Because Guirgis' had integrated these questions into the characters themselves, we lost an opportunity not only to follow these lines of thinking but also to watch personalities unfold. And given the exceptional acting talent gathered on the stage, that loss was all the more disappointing.

But there were strengths, and some of them impressive. When the dialogue wasn't philistine, it was sometimes quite challenging, and at no point in the play did I appreciate this more than in the exchange between the prosecutor and Caiaphas the Elder. For his role in Jesus' trial, Caiaphas rationally explained his fear of Roman reprisal if the Jewish community had failed to surrender Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not theologians and historians agree with this interpretation of Caiaphas' actions, it disclosed a thoughtfulness and a complexity to which a glib dismissal of the man's problem is wholly unfair.

Guirgis gave us a Caiaphas who wasn't heartless, but one who had to be practical, or realistic, vis--vis a perceived threat to the safety of his own people and to the integrity of the 613 commandments. In the role of Caiaphas, Mark Czoske gave a superlative characterization, arguably the best in the play. He brought out not only a strong sense of the man's shortcomings (his parochialism and self-interest included), but also his sympathy, perspicacity, and insight into human nature. The result was a commanding depiction of how such a heavy dilemma might resonate within the heart and mind of a zealous but sagacious religious leader.

In the role of Pilate, Emanueal Buckley was stentorian; had there been rafters, they'd have shaken. Giving us forceful confidence and imperious condescension, he conveyed through it all what seemed to be Pilate's resignation to the distastefulness of his situation in the Roman Empire. He was trapped in an ugly, hostile land where he admittedly had to carry out some unpleasant duties, not the least of which was the crucifixion of people who were probably innocent. Buckley's skill as an actor was sharp as a needle, but he was sometimes so combative in this role that he walked the edge of believability.

The Satan that Guirgis gave us was not the standard Prince of Darkness, the one with horns and an indiscriminate malevolence. This Satan was a good deal more interesting; he brutalized people by being honest with them. In this role, Paul D'Addario was uneven inasmuch as he was sometimes quite smooth, pulling us in right behind him; at other times, though, there was some awkwardness, as if he was trying too hard to act. Like Buckley in the role of Pilate, D'Addario occasionally pushed the anger to an embarrassing extreme. Nevertheless, D'Addario was so manipulative as Satan that he occasionally created sympathy, which, furthermore, moved in each direction: sometimes toward the Fallen Angel and other times from him.

Benjamin Montague played the sycophantic prosecutor, El-Fayoumy, so effectively that he was like a flashing neon sign on stage. His rapid-fire delivery was astounding, especially in view of the fact that he rarely tripped over his words or spoke unintelligbly. One wonders how he had time to think about acting in the midst of that lightning-fast tongue-twisting. But he managed it, and he did so while bringing out his character's sincerity in one moment and disingenuousness the next.

Fabiana Cunningham, played by Kathleen Logelin, was the defense attorney, a part intended to meet the need for sobriety and righteousness in the courtroom. Cunningham met that need, but Logelin was stiff in the role, at times sounding as though she was reading her lines. Dignity doesn't have to sound so thoroughly rehearsed.

Lisa Fernandez played St. Monica with flaming flair. Although the script brought her mouth down to sewer level, Fernandez vivified Monica with sharp edges. She was rudely unceremonious, but strong, forthright, and compassionate. Despite her nasty patois and the metaphors that went with it, Fernandez' performance itself was outstanding.

The single most enigmatic character in the play was Judas himself. Michael Patrick Thornton created a pall of anguished resignation. Present on stage from curtain to curtain, he sat most of the time silent and motionless, stage right, such that either he, or something that his constant presence represented -- the hope for redemption, perhaps -- served as an ever-present reminder of the reason behind it all. Saying as much with his wordless gaze as with his plangent voice, Thornton's magnificent portrayal may have been more than that of Judas Iscariot. He may have been portraying the one personal deficit that unified all the characters at the center (and some at the periphery) of this drama.

Unfortunately, the weakest part of the play came at the end, precisely where weakness does the most damage. The juror delivered a long tiresome monologue that left us with nothing to struggle with. Jesus' soliloquy was equally boring; he didn't offer us even so much as a simple parable that required us to think. And worst of all, the entire scene seemed hastily cobbled.

And to my surprise, the juror revealed the verdict. The surprise, though, wasn't in the jury's decision per se, but in the fact that it was shared with the audience. This seemed to defeat the purpose of debating the issues surrounding Judas' act of betrayal. Of course, Guirgis may have wanted to assert the result of his own deliberation, but it changed the complexion of the arguments preceding it.

In my opinion, Guirgis has a compelling idea in this play. The story has some gleaming moments and many rich, colorful characters that give a human face to his recondite questions. I'd hope that Guirgis chooses to re-work the script in order to raise the level of the dialogue (without compromising the realism) and to increase the cohesiveness of both the story and, by extension, the controversies.