Theatre review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is equal parts blasphemy and profundity

Oh, that time honoured question that has perplexed man for centuries: if God is good and we are made in his image, why does evil exist in the world?  This and other heady philosophical questions are explored in a surprisingly funny The Last Days of Judas Iscariot that is equal parts blasphemy and profundity.

Dawn Petten as Mother Teresa in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  Photo Tim Matheson.Set in a courtroom of Purgatory, that ecclesial equivalent of a free clinic waiting room, a petition is introduced (signed by no other than God himself) challenging Judas’ damnation, arguing that his betrayal was merely part of some heavenly plan.  Calling on a host of witnesses, both biblical and contemporary, defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, in a strong performance by Katherine Venour, begins to fashion her argument that a travesty has occurred and Jesus’ betrayer does not deserve his place in Hell.

Given playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ playful irreverence in presenting his arguments, the irony that Judas’ defense attorney is agnostic helps set the stage.  Often times poetic, Guirgi’s anachronistic text gives a modern feel to many of his characters.

In a wonderfully brazen and hilarious performance, Marci T House sets the mood early as a street-wise Saint Monica who as the self-proclaimed “heaven’s nag” gets God to sign the petition that brings Judas’ cause to trial.

Marcus Youssef makes the most of his swarthy and multipe-named prosecutor and Kevin McNulty is perfectly cranky as Judge Littlefield who has been stuck in Purgatory for 140 years after having himself sealed his own fate by noose and tree.  McNulty is assisted by his bailiff, the suitably dense Kyle Jespersen, attired in Van Halen t-shirt and dressing gown.

Among the experts called during the trial is a wonderful parody by Dawn Petten as the “beatified iconic virgin” Mother Theresa (pictured right in a photo by Tim Matheson) who finds herself challenged for some of her own un-saintly past, and Anthony F Ingram as Sigmund Freud who argues that Judas is no more guilty of his actions than someone who sneezes on you and gives you his cold.

In a sea of outstanding performances it is Michael Kopsa’s Satan and Carl Kennedy’s dual roles of Simon the Zealot and Pontius Pilate that were the most memorable among the witnesses.  Kopsa, scotch in hand, gives such a chilling portrayal of the Lord of Darkness one would think that Hell had indeed frozen over and Kennedy plays his two roles with such contrast that it is hard to believe it is the same actor.

Along with the experts called at the trial, a number of eyewitnesses to those final days are called upon to act as character references.  In one of the most beautiful of these monologues, Adrienne Wong portrays a Mary Magdalene so full of joy and heart in recounting her relationship with Jesus that I felt cheated in its brevity.

With a stronger first act, the play does lose some steam as the trial comes abruptly to an end in act two and Ron Reed is sent on stage to deliver the verdict to a catatonic Judas.  In this closing monologue Reed rises to the difficult task of helping to place things into some more relatable context with a parable of his own.  As Judas and Jesus, Bob Frazer and Todd Thomson are similarly challenged in a penultimate scene that seeks some reconciliation between them.

Drew Facey’s warehouse set is perfectly incongruous for a section of Purgatory called Hope and Itai Erdal’s contrasted lighting, from the starkness of the court room to the more heavenly glow of the character witnesses, is superb.

Vancouver rarely gets an opportunity to see this many fine actors assembled on a single stage and is a testament to the work of the five companies that have come together to present this full-scale version of what began as a staged reading in 2009.  Audiences should be taking full advantage of it.

4 1/2 of 5 stars The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

By Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Directed by Stephen Drover.  A Pound of Flesh Theatre production in association with Pacific Theatre and Neworld Theatre.  Presented by The Cultch as part of Rumble Productions’ Tremors Festival.  On stage at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre through April 21, 2012.  Visit http://www.thecultch.com for tickets and information.

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