Holy Hell, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is Divine!

Courtney Lomelo, Paul Menzel and Jeff Miller in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Courtney Lomelo, Paul Menzel and Jeff Miller in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot Photo by Pin Lim
The setup:

Sometimes writing a review is an absolute joy. To be clear, and contrary to popular assumptions, this never happens when one is writing a less than glowing assessment. At least never for me. My “swinging from the rafters with glee” comes when I get to dedicate this space to a show so superb that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin praising it.

Gravity Player’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is one of those shows.

Not that we should be surprised, really. After all, the hysterically funny/wickedly smart religious courtroom thriller, which asks if iconic betrayer Judas Iscariot should be forgiven for his sins, is written by none other than Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis. We saw his brand of frenetic, hip and guttural-with-gutter-talk work in Houston when, last season, Gravity Players did equal justice to Guirgis’s fidelity and sobriety cage-match play, Motherfucker with the Hat.

But if Gravity Players hit a home run with MOFO, it has won the World Series with Iscariot, thanks to assembling what can only be called a Houston dream team of performers. Performers who individually would be reason enough to go see a production. Luis Galindo? Check. Patricia Duran? Check. Philip Hays? Check. Courtney Lomelo? Aha. Nick Farco? Yup. Jeff Miller too. How about Paul Menzel, Candice D’Meza, Josh Morrison and Roc Living to round the cast out? It’s almost too much talent in one space. It’s a gluttonous feast of acting riches, and we’re more than ready to gorge ourselves.

So, in the parlance of Guirgis, buckle up, bitches, it’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

The execution:

Actually, not a hell of a ride, more like a purgatory of a ride as Guirgis sets his play in the afterlife limbo. Judge Littlefield (Paul Menzel) presides over Purgatory Court in the District of Hope, a court that gives iffy, previously condemned characters a chance to plead their case and move on up, as it were. Arguing the day’s most controversial file, the case of Judas Iscariot, are the hysterically unctuous prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Luis Galindo channeling an accent somewhere in between Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas and Borat), and the tough-talking defense attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Courtney Lomelo).

Their case, which will determine if Judas (Nick Farco) can be released from Hell, examines his motivations, the possible misinterpretations of his story and whether or not a God that espouses forgiveness and unconditional love should and must extend those notions to the man the world believes is responsible for the death of Jesus. Far from a sarcastic takedown of religion, Guirgis's play gives us a theological wad of gum to chew on and blow bubbles with until we can’t remember what the flavor was in the first place.

But because this is Guirgis, you know that it’s gonna get down, dirty, expletive-filled and rip-roaringly funny in the process.

Judas, in a state of hellish catatonia, never appears at his own trial. Instead we see him in a series of flashbacks that run the gamut from touchingly enlightening to dastardly funny. The trial itself consists of a series of witnesses brought forth to testify on or against his behalf. The list is long. There’s Judas’s mother, Mother Teresa, and a foul-mouthed, smack-talking St. Monica (Patricia Duran, damn near stealing the show from her equally superb cast mates). Mary Magdalene (Candice D’Meza) speaks of Jesus’ love for Judas. Of course, there are the Apostles, Matthias of Galilee, St. Peter, Simon the Zealot and St. Thomas (each given uniquely thoughtful and quirky personalities by Philip Hays). Sigmund Freud and an intensely terrifying, Southern-accented, golf-attired Pontius Pilate (Josh Morrison) give their testimony. Caiaphas the Elder (Paul Menzel) speaks on behalf of the era’s non-Jesus-believing Jews. And then of course there’s a rock and roll-ish, supremely manipulative, bad-ass Satan (Jeff Miller, because, of course, who else would we want to play Satan?), conjured up to give his take on the whole mess.

But while each witness is given his or her comic due, Guirgis cleverly slips something else into the mix, namely a religious history lesson mixed with seeds of doubt about each figure’s historic classification as good or evil. Forget who Pontius Pilate is? Can’t remember one Apostle from the other? Or why Caiaphas, a Jew, was given so much power by the Romans? Guirgis sneaks in the Sunday school lesson as if it's an aspirin hidden in a spoon of tasty jam. Just as important to the play’s info-tainment, though, is Guirgis’s move beyond these character Wiki pages, toward a more creative imagining of their parts in the Judas myth.

As witnesses are examined and cross-examined and allowed their own depositional monologues, no one comes out smelling like roses or shining like moonbeams. Mother Teresa is both a saint and a cunning opportunist, Pilate is shown to be a Roman murderer and a man loyally doing his job righteously, Caiaphas is accessory to Jesus’ murder and a savior of thousands of other Jews. Judas is callous betrayer and misguided freedom fighter. No one is perfectly one thing or the other. Not even Jesus (Roc Living), who wafts through the play in serene, mystical fashion.

And isn’t that Guirgis’s point amidst all the side-splitting, swear-a-minute fun? If no one is perfect, then no one is fit to be revered or condemned. Surely not by a God, who himself allowed us to be this way in the first place. Whether Guirgis’s characters agree with his theory is another question altogether. Whether we are prepared for the final sad and immensely touching moments that close out the play is no question. We aren’t. We don’t see this ending coming, and the surprise makes it all the more brilliant.

Judas Iscariot is a long play, clocking in at just under three hours. But thanks to director James Belcher’s assured direction that beautifully honors Guirgis’s intentions while bringing out the best in his heavy-hitting cast, it’s three hours of pure delight and intrigue. Could a quibble be made about some clunky, off-pace scene changes and ill-advised reliance on irksomely recorded gavel strikes to switch up the action? Sure. Additionally, the use of a few video projections as trial evidence doesn’t work quite as planned. But with everything Belcher gets right in this ambitious production, these small matters are noted but easily overlooked.

The verdict:

Gravity Players is a new company still trying to delineate what its mission will be. At present it's using nebulous language, claiming a desire to “produce theatre that inspires and stirs the senses and emotions” as a defining mandate. That’s fine for now. It can take a company time to really find its raison d'être mojo.

And while so far Gravity has more than thrilled us with its efforts, there’s no escaping that it’s been by tackling two shows by the same playwright. A playwright very notable for his specific style.

So it’s the next play that will define the future of this immensely talented company. The next production that will, we hope, show us the company's range and ability to stretch. A future effort that, fingers crossed, will cement Gravity Players as an exciting and versatile player in the Houston theater ecosystem. We’re pretty confident they can do it. We hope they are as well.

The Last Day of Judas Iscariot continues through September 3 at Chelsea Market Theatre, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 281-892-1323 or visit $25.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman