Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate. Names ring a bell? Most likely they do. But just to fill in the blanks for anyone who failed Sunday School or was otherwise engaged watching cartoons on weekend mornings, here’s the scoop:
Judas Iscariot is the dude who betrayed Jesus. Well, actually, he was more than some random dude; he was one of the 12 disciples who lived and followed the self-professed son of God. On the night of the Last Supper, Judas led religious rulers to Jesus so he could be arrested and for his info, Judas was gifted with 30 silver coins. The story gets a little muddy from there. By some accounts, in an OMG "what have I done" moment, Judas repented, unsuccessfully tried to give back the coins and then hung himself. Others think he bought a field with his profits, causing his bowels to burst out of his body. Or maybe he just lived in ousted misery until he eventually dropped dead. Regardless, he tattled, got caught and lives forever in betrayer infamy.
Pontius Pilate has a more straightforward back story. He was the head Roman honcho in Judaea from 26 CE to 36 CE. So yeah, he was the one responsible for Jesus’s execution.
So why the New Testament history lesson? For this you can thank young Houston playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil, whose world premiere comedy, The Book of Maggie, is now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre. The premise? Judas and Pontius are frenemies with a life sentence in Hell. Pilate receives a mysterious holy order to reform bad girl Joan, who is in the midst of a near-death experience. For what reward or purpose, he doesn’t know. Judas, on the other hand, is given a very distinct prize to claim: None other than Saint Peter himself informs Judas that the Rapture is coming and his only hope for entrance into Heaven is to stop a suicidal trailer-trash young woman named Maggie from killing herself.
Zealous religious literalists may want to take a Valium; in this play, Judas is a drunk, Pilate is not above taking a hit of dope when the occasional calls for it, Saint Peter spends most of his time writing sci-fi novels, Joan thinks hell is terrific fun and Maggie likens God to a heartless TV showrunner.
The beach, Hell and the Pearly Gates (designed with attractive simplicity by Brad Kanouse) are where we find ourselves in quick rotation during the show’s two hour, two act duration. But it’s Hell that we start off in. And it’s here where Bourque-Sheil lays the groundwork for the irreverent tone of the play. We first meet the perma intoxicated and dressed in brown-hued biblical robes Judas (a sardonically slurring Luis Galindo) as he blows cigarette smoke at Pontius Pilate’s beloved garden. While Pilate (Sean Patrick Judge) is outfitted like a strong Roman dignitary, donning a gold muscleman breastplate, red cape and head wreath, he’s more Miss Manners than Mr. Tough Guy. Berating Judas for his drunkenness and reminding him (once again) not to smoke around his plants, the two engage in a kind of shticky banter that skewers everything from the biblical texts to their fire and brimstoneless Hell.
Pilate: “Why did we think Hell was going to be fire? It’s more frigid.”
Judas: “Must be some conspiracy.”
Pilate: “Why do you always think that it’s a conspiracy?”
Judas: “Because that’s what you do when you’re me!”
This type of biblical piss-taking, which pokes good-natured fun at all manner of biblical stories and personalities, has some very amusingly clever moments, but director Josh Morrison too often plays Bourque-Sheil’s quip-heavy scenes like sketch comedy, making it feel akin to a set-up, punch-line kind of evening instead of a satisfying narrative arc.
More successful and frankly interesting is Bourque-Sheil’s depiction of Maggie (played with appealing, sassy but sweet sarcasm by Melissa Molano), whom we meet on the beach as she’s preparing to kill herself with booze, drugs and a gun if necessary. Opening with “Hi God, it’s me, Maggie” in a delicious nod to novelist Judy Blume, Maggie is utterly disappointed with her life — wretched trauma followed by tragedy — which she blames on God’s indifference. While still maintaining the religiously impudent comical tone, here Morrison slows the pace down a tad to allow Maggie’s ideas about a potentially uncaring God to sink in and Judas’s tough-love, anti-suicide, "don’t screw up my getting into heaven" speech to land with comic aplomb.
It’s a shame, then, when Joan (Courtney Lomelo) comes onto the scene as the bad girl "near-deather," drinking most of Maggie’s booze, squealing with glee when Pilate informs her that Hell provides unlimited amounts of mind-altering substances and pushing them all to question God’s motives. Bourque-Sheil hints throughout the play that Joan is not who she appears to be and ultimately uses her in a final, incongruously serious scene to make his thought-provoking points about our perceptions of the afterlife. But no matter what insights have been piled on her shoulders, Joan, with her flitting about and awkward insinuation into most scenes, feels like an add-on character, used in place of a more elegant way to drive the action forward.
However, we can set aside the hit-and-miss jokiness of the play and some messy narrative threads for the pure joy of watching Nick Farco’s Saint Peter. Swathed in shades of gray, from his curly, helmet-headed hairdo and thick, short beard to his flowing saintly silver-hued robes (the best of Claremarie Verheyen’s terrific costumes), this Peter is not the gatekeeper we expect. He’s boastful (forever name-dropping himself as the one who created Christianity), fussily quick to anger (as happens whenever anyone gets too close to his gate) and formal but colloquially naff, injecting his metered speech with phrases like “c’mon, man.” Not to mention his whole sci-fi writing passion that thinly masks his own emotional and religious frustrations with humor and pathos. He's a hoot of a character, drawn with the complexity the other roles lack, and Falco utterly slays it. Physically, Farco oozes a perfect mix of bombast-belying insecurity that enhances his impeccable comedic timing, allowing him to deliver the laughs even on some of Bourque-Sheil’s less than winning bits.
And those winning bits seem less and less successful by the time we’re into the draggy second act, in which the shtick gets a bit tired and the bad behavior less shocking. Maggie is given a creatively apocalyptic reason to live, Peter lets down the pretense, Judas remains drunk and bitter as usual, and Joan reveals herself, delivering to Pilate the show’s central musing on the validity and usefulness of Heaven and Hell.
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It must be noted that not only is this a new play, but it is the first play ever written by Bourque-Sheil and it shows. Impressively smart and funny in places, the play feels over-boiled and unnecessarily populated with ideas in others. The Book of Maggie feels a bit as if it were written by a gifted kid in a candy store, ambitiously believing that all the sweets taste great but stuffing too many in his mouth at a time to digest them properly.
Still, Bourque-Sheil has some tremendously important and interesting things to say about how we view religion and by extension our time on earth, displaying a humorously literate grasp of biblical doctrine and the confidence not to tie all his ideas up in neat bows. All impressive for such a novice playwright.
I for one look forward to what Bourque-Sheil comes up with in the afterlife of The Book of Maggie.
The Book of Maggie runs through February 14 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagesthreatre.com. $21-$54.