‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ at Forum Theatre

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Redemption on Trial

Celebrating Forum Theatre’s 10th Season, is the Helen Hayes-nominated return production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, directed by John Vreeke.The 2005 play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis debates punishment, redemption, and the nature of free will as Judas is on trial in Purgatory.  Catatonic, allegedly so consumed by guilt that he cannot speak in his own defense, lawyers, witnesses, Saints, Freud, and the Devil himself, try the case without him.

Julie Garner, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Brian Hemmingsen, and Scott McCormick. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Julie Garner, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Brian Hemmingsen, and Scott McCormick. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Forum Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Dove said his decision to remount The Last Days of Judas Iscariot defines who they are as a theatre company. “It started our shift toward new plays and was the type of play that would become our aesthetic: highly affecting stories that ask big, big questions. We thought, ‘What better way to celebrate how far we’ve come than to look at the play that started it all?’”

Sometimes we seek stories that we think will entertain us, and then there are others that find us because of the timely relevance and /or an identifiable subject matter. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a story that found me.

The question of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a personal one.

The conflict between divine mercy and personal choice through free will inhabit Guirgis’ world of wonder and questions why Judas Iscariot was condemned to Hell for eternity when other apostles were given forgiveness by Jesus.

Without knowing how this play would evolve, my curiosity pondered why there was sympathy for the betrayer of the greatest mistake in history. On the other hand, I recognized the value and relevance of such a play addressing the hunger and real need to discuss the big questions in life about the afterlife, God’s love and his final judgement. Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is not only bold and dramatic theatre, the greater merit is the three hours shared experience of public discussion about faith,  spirituality, personal responsibility, and the impact of the choices that we make.

As fiercely funny as it is tragic, the intensity and intention of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is ferocious. Guirgis’ script dances with philosophical and emotional reasoning while exploring the theological issues and the personal backstories of the saints and sinners who inhabit this imagined, multidimensional world between Heaven and Hell.

With human life, a gift has been given to all us. How one chooses to receive that gift and the favor that it provides, and how we choose to share our lives with others, ultimately defines the meaning of life and is the take-away of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

The fact that Jesus knew that Judas would betray him doesn’t mean that Judas was a puppet of God’s will. Judas made the choice. A man’s character is defined by his actions.

While we do not know the motivation behind Judas’s betrayal, for 30 pieces of silver he allowed his desires to be manipulated by Satan. Judas’ actions: his greed, persistent misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission, and lust for his idea of righteous power was his ultimate undoing.

If you believe in God, one learns to accept that as humans, all is not known.In a word, it is Faith – the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

Frankly, it is that lack of irrefutable evidence and the need to having the answers to everything that makes a nonbeliever’s ‘faith’ in a higher power troubling. In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot we see those sentiments memorialized in court testimony and through the flashback scenes with the various characters. Answering some of those unfulfilled questions and addressing that worldly point of view doubt is the gravitas of Guirgis’ potent and timely play. Still, the play often felt like a gratuitous exercise of indulgence testing the limits of narrative balance and repetition, dramatic momentum, and my active attention.

Thankfully, Vreeke’s fine-tuned direction filled the inconsistencies of the script with skilled continuity, active staging, and heightened, entertaining performances by an eclectic, fifteen member ensemble making the journey rewarding. Vreeke’s cohesive understanding of the text and his sophisticated ability to navigate the subtext, lugubrious monologues, and what one could argue a few unnecessary characters is an absolute strength of this Judas Iscariot production.

The play begins with a traditional look at judgement, and a writ being handed down from the pearly gates of Heaven by St. Peter. The sparse, striking set and lighting design by Colin K. Bills, sound design by Michael Dove and costume design by Pei Lee appropriately dressed and filled the space without distracting or taking away from the power of the text.

The complicated showdown and battle of legal wills are presented by two attorneys debating remorse and grace, and whose passionate rhetoric and verbal combat test the boundaries of spiritual truth, intellectual reasoning, and courtroom decorum in this anything-goes Purgatory Hall of Justice.

Defense Attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, played by Julie Garner, is tenacious and no-nonsense, and her determination to successfully plead Judas’ case is unwavering. Yusef El-Fayoumy as the boisterous and strident opposition, craftily created by Scott McCormick’s impeccable timing, antics, and humorous interpretation, produces several of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot best and memorable moments.

On a circular centerpiece in the middle of the court room, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh solemenly exists as the inscrutable Judas and Patrick Bussink as Jesus of Nazareth anchors the show.

The pleasure of Brian Hemmingsen’s southern charm and drawl never ends in his role as the animated and frustrated Judge Littlefield. But, it is his role as Caiaphas the Elder, where his adroit emotional skills elucidating the character’s conflicted but resolute nature that resonates authenticity and lasting impact.

As the boastful, foul-mouthed, trash-talking Saint Monica, Alina Collins Maldonado sets the tone early for the high stakes court room hijinks and her spirited, scene stealing, historical revisionism that brings flava to Purgatory and laugh out loud laughs.

The charismatic Nora Achrati makes distinct character choices to differentiate her dual roles of Loretta, Mother Teresa, and Mary Magdalene. Jim Jorgensen is smarmy and terrifying as Satan, a cunning liar, a charming manipulator, and a white-suit-wearing twisted demon seeking to kill, steal and destroy hearts, minds and egos at any opportunity.

Frank Britton’s memorable time on the stand as the militant and righteous Pontius Pilate is a second act highlight as the trial nears its end. Britton has the rare ability of elevating any character that he performs and making his mark without ever stealing focus from the other ensemble members. (Britton was brutally assaulted and injured on his way home from the Monday night cast party of Judas Iscariot. He is having surgery today, and his return to the show is currently unknown.)

Was Judas a true disciple of Christ or an uncommitted pretender?

We all mythologize our lives, but ultimately we are free to choose between two masters: sin or Christ Jesus. At some point Judas tried to undo the evil he had done by returning the money but  he was too late. Judas’s ultimate fate is decided.

Romans (6:19-23) reminds us that the wages of sin is eternal death. In a life without God and a slave to sin, that’s all one can expect or hope. It’s impossible to be neutral. Being a “good” person is not enough, and without accepting salvation the final outcome is guaranteed.

Stephen Adly Guirgis and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot questions God’s fairness in allowing one man to bear such guilt. The importance of salvation is the vital missing aspect of what will be seen as a thought provoking argument. God’s sovereign plan is not for man to entirely understand, but what is known is that salvation can not be bartered for, pleaded, or received because of good deeds.

Truth or allegory, what one is likely to believe will be based on the experiences of their background and spiritual belief. For those who come open to fictional possibilities, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is for you.

 Kecia Campbell, Scott McCormick, Frank B. Moorman, Annie Houston,Jessie Terrill, Frank Britton, and Nora Achrati.

Kecia Campbell, Scott McCormick, Frank B. Moorman, Annie Houston,Jessie Terrill, Frank Britton, and Nora Achrati. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

Through Forum Theatre’s new Forum for All initiative, all walk up tickets are Pay-What-You-Want, and such an offer to see this ‘kick in the pants’ show is one choice that doesn’t need to be questioned or debated.

Running Time: Three hours, with one 15 minute intermission.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays through June 14, 2013 at Forum Theatre performing at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]