JUDAS ON TRIAL
Sunday school was never like this.
But Stephen Adley Guirgis’s play, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” is.
One character, for example, introduces herself by saying: “My name is MONICA — better known to you mere mortals as SAINT Monica. Yeah, dass right, SAINT — as in ‘Better not don’t get up in my grill ’cuz I’ll mess your s--- up, ’cuz I’m a Saint and I got mad saintly connects,’ OK?”
She boasts about nagging God so much to save her son that he finally answered her prayers. And if she hadn’t nagged, she says, “I wouldn’t never made it to be no Saint, and the church wouldn’t a had no Father of the Church named Saint Augustine.”
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” playing at Laboratory Theater of Florida March 8-23, is full of streetwise, trashtalking people from Biblical times and history.
The premise: Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is on trial in Purgatory (a place described as having plumbing, bodegas, a movie theater and even a little park where people can walk their dogs).
The playwright, who was raised Catholic, says the story of Judas troubled him when he was a kid. “It didn’t make sense to me, it frightened me and seemed to fly in the face of the notion of the all-loving, all-merciful God that the very good and loving nuns at the Corpus Christi School on 121st Street were teaching me about,” Mr. Guirgis writes in the introduction to his script.
The show was originally produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York in March 2005, with Eric Bogosian playing Satan and Sam Rockwell in the role of Judas. A four-week run at the Public Theatre, with Philip Seymour Hoffman directing, sold out.
“There are no characters (in this play) that are average; they’re all outlandish and larger-than-life,” says Annette Trossbach, artistic director at Lab Theatre and director of the upcoming production. “You don’t expect the mother of Saint Augustine to come out talking trash. But by the end of that speech, she has a beautiful moment with Judas. She puts her arms around him and warms him, and says, ‘I’m going to nag to God. This is not fair.’ She goes from being really sassy and outrageous to being like a mother, a great mom. Like Roseanne.”
Ms. Trossbach, who has a degree in theater and one in religion, says she’s “forever seeking and searching,” and adds she finds scripts or shows that question religion, ethics and morality especially interesting. “And this one is so scathing, jaw dropping and smart. It’s entertaining while also being informative. I found it irresistible.”
She describes “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” as “more of a pageant than a play.”
Variety called it an “expressionistic fantasy … (with) raw language and flamboyantly street-savvy characters.”
What attracted Ms. Trossbach to the show was its smartness, she says.
“We’re still talking about Judas today, this whole question of human responsibility or divine sovereignty. Was Judas chosen by God and used involuntarily, as part of the plan, or was he responsible? Did he make a choice? Is he responsible for his crimes?
“Judas (is considered) the greatest traitor of all time. Is it warranted we think of him like that? Is it fair?”
By setting the action in a courtroom, the play examines both sides of the question, with a prosecuting and a defending attorney representing each view.
Lucy Harris plays the defense attorney, opposite Tim Gunderman.
“I prefer doing shows that are a little outside the box, and this seems like something I hadn’t seen before on any stage around here,” Ms. Harris says. “I couldn’t help but get involved, mostly just because I wanted to try something different.
“I thought it was an interesting angle, considering how everyone always considers (Judas) to be the bad guy. But there were several bad guys all involved. I think it’s a really smart idea to look at it from different angles. It wasn’t all Judas.”
Her character argues in court that the synthesis of God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice can only produce mercy and forgiveness — and that Judas is deserving of that mercy and forgiveness.
The role is challenging, Ms. Harris says, because she’s used to playing comedic roles, whereas the defense attorney is more straightforward and surrounded by characters she describes as “kooky and lively.”
She describes the play as “very, very funny, (with) some poignant moments that really make people think.”
Ms. Trossbach says when she initially read the script, she laughed so hard she cried. “That’s an unusual reaction for me,” she says. “It’s also extremely informative and exposes really tough questions. There’s that balance.”
Their first rehearsal lasted four hours, “(because) we were laughing so hard,” she recalls.
The cast, which she describes as consisting of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists, has had some interesting discussions in preparing for the play. They spent the first couple of weeks talking about the Bible and looking at all the religious references in the text.
“Everybody’s bringing in outside sources,” she says, explaining that someone brought in Dante’s “Inferno.”
“He defines who sits in what circles of hell — who’s really burning up, and who’s just getting singed,” she says.
Mr. Guirgis, the playwright, has dealt with similar themes of morality and God’s existence in previous plays, such as “Jesus Hopped the A-Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street.”
His 2011 “The Mother!#$%!& with the Hat,” played on Broadway and starred Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale. The title admittedly created problems not only in marketing and advertising the play, but in reviewing it as well. But it was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play, and for a 2011 Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play and a 2011 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
Many of Mr. Guirgis’s characters freely use four-letter words, including the religious characters in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
If some think he’s mocking religion by doing so, they’re mistaken.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest who worked as a theological consultant to the original production, writes this in his book, “A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions”: “Guirgis provided a sophisticated theological treatment of the issue, in all the slangy (and sometimes foul-mouthed) urban argot for which he is known among theater aficionados. In this case, the streetwise lingo represented the playwright’s attempt at what theologians call an ‘inculturation’ of the Bible — that is, a translation of the Bible texts not simply into a different language but for a specific culture.
“For Guirgis, that culture is contemporary urban life. Hence, his saints and apostles speak (and often shout) as if they were standing on a crowded subway station at rush hour. Freed from the need to provide historically accurate quotations for his characters, Guirgis deploys such language to reveal the essential nature of his characters in surprising ways.”
And as for the playwright, well, at the end of his script, in the acknowledgements section, he thanks God. “I struggle with God. I struggle with Life,” he writes. “I want simple answers and easy solutions. I want to do it on my own and always be in control. Mostly, I want to avoid the uncomfortable, which always leads to more discomfort. God, I think, is perhaps The Unavoidable and writing, for me, is the curse that brings me a little bit closer to that Unavoidable entity that ultimately allows me freedom and access to my work and to my life. Some people are curious about a writer’s ‘creative process.’ I can’t explain mine except to say that God is the starting point and the finish line. In other words, when all else fails — and it always does — I pray.” ¦
— Editor’s note: Nancy Stetson last wrote about “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in the Aug. 6, 2008, issue of Florida Weekly. She interviewed Father James Martin for a story headlined: “Betrayal & Forgiveness: At the intersection of theology and theater.”