Judging Judas Iscariot at Stagecrafters Theater

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 6/20/24

It is party time in purgatory as Stagecrafters winds up its 2023-24 season with "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

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Judging Judas Iscariot at Stagecrafters Theater


It is party time in purgatory as Stagecrafters winds up its 2023-24 season with "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" by Stephen Adly Guirgis. This fantastical time/space-bender centers on a simple question: Does Judas Iscariot deserve eternal sentence in hell?

The set-up is surreal. Judge (John Pinto) presides over a trial in County "Hope" in purgatory. Attorney Cunningham (Olivia Gendron) petitions his court to overturn the condemnation of Judas to hell. How does a mere judge (one so flawed that he himself lives in purgatory) have jurisdiction over a dictate from God?

Before the trial begins, Guirgis shows his hand. As Henrietta Iscariot, Jen Allegra's monologue is full of conflicted emotions, creating the sense she can only constrain sobbing grief by venting measured anger: "If my son is in hell, then there is no heaven - because if my son is in hell, then there is no God."

Geremy Webne-Behrman is a striking Judas Iscariot. Most of the time he sits on the floor of a side stage eave, leaning against the wall as though he does not have the energy to sit upright. In a catatonic state, he shows no interest in his fate. He only comes alive when Jesus (Harrison Rothbaum) shows up: "Why didn't you make me good enough!" he cries. Why indeed?

An implausible collection of notables parade into the courtroom. Saint Monica (Caren Bermudez), the mother of Saint Augustine, is full of smart talk, not what you expect from a woman celebrated for her piety. Mother Teresa (Jalina Wayser) is a cartoonish modern-day saint.

The lawyers, too, are a sideshow. Prosecutor El Fayoumy (Steven Butler) is a lighthearted parody of the lawyer without principles. He brown noses the judge, flirts with the defense attorney and blanches in fright whenever a defense witness willfully argues.

Defense attorney Cunningham is all business and full of conviction. Gendron makes you feel Cunningham's dismay when witnesses flummox her. In the end, she echos Henrietta's case against God, arguing it is cruel and capricious to torture your own creation.

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is seriocomic in tone. You are not expecting to meet a hip-hop Saint Monica, a booby Mother Teresa, a narcissistic Satan. When not making impassioned arguments, Gendron's Cunningham moves about the stage like she is doing a pole-less pole dance, and every character is chimerical.

Guirgis's characters are not developed beyond surface traits. The costume design of Jane Toczek draws out their eccentricities. While Director Cate Pappas puts the judge on a raised pedestal in center stage, it does not distract you from the antics of the celebrity witnesses testifying amid a courtroom set designed by Stephanie Hessler.

The desperation of Cunningham's defense picks up in Act 2. Jim Ludovici exudes conceit as Sigmund Freud, mildly annoyed that he has to call attention to his "greatness." He is also a send-up of "innocent because of insanity," arguing that Judas's suicide proves he was an irresponsible psychotic.

Cunningham also calls Pontius Pilate (Brandon Tabb) and the Sanhedrin priest Caiaphas (John Pinto in a dual role). Her purpose is to prove Judas repented of his betrayal, thus deserving forgiveness. But again, the comical and contrasting pomposity of the characters frustrates her gambit.

Larry Arrigale's Satan is perfectly composed. "Conjured up" twice for the trial, Arrigale has a way of gazing lovingly at everyone as though they were mirrors in which he can admire his magnificence. He, too, frustrates Cunningham with faux amity and by pointing out the "design flaws" in "free will."

The son of an immigrant Coptic Christian Egyptian father and an Irish mother, Guirgis grew up in New York City. "Last Days" is one of his early plays. It premiered in 2005, but Guirgis should have waited longer.

A Coptic manuscript of the "Gospel of Judas" was discovered just one year after its premiere. The book was widely known in its day, a 2nd-century Gnostic argument (condemned by the triumphant church as heretical) that Judas was the only disciple who understood Jesus and planned the betrayal so Jesus could fulfill his salvation mission.

Guirgis also wants to examine the disturbing problem of Judas. How could someone so essential to the salvation mission of Jesus be damned to hell (as well as becoming a vehicle for antisemitism)? But Guirgis's theological ideas are slack.

"Last Days" is also overly long. When it ends in a modern-day morality fable with jury foreman Butch Honeywell (Daniel Romano) you feel it is just too spent to continue. Its burlesque aspect is finely performed. Guirgis's theological meandering is like the storytelling in early musicals - there to give an excuse to sing songs.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" will run through June 30. Tickets available at 215-247-8881 or at thestagecrafters.org