BWW Interview: Holding a Mirror Up to the Audience: Director Stacey Koloski Discusses THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT
"Superficially the play is a courtroom drama with judge, jury, and attorneys, but really it is a universal exploration of the themes of forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and the willingness to accept others."
Portland-based theatre artist Stacey Koloski is talking about her latest project, directing Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Mad Horse Theatre in South Portland. The drama with a cast of sixteen comprised of company regulars and guest artists opens Friday, March 24.
Koloski describes Guirgis' 2005 play, which received its first performance at NYC's Public Theatre, as a "perfect fit" for the Mad Horse ensemble. The play was actually brought to us about two years ago by Nick Schroeder who plays Judas, and we read it as a company several times and thought it would be a great opportunity to work with new guest artists as well as our usual team."
Koloski goes on to describe Guirgis' work: "The playwright has take the iconic Biblical figures we all know and turned them into real people. So this is less about flowing robes and more contemporary in feeling. He has mixed the Biblical stories and characters with other identifiable contemporary and historical characters who would never actually have met Judas. The drama takes place in Purgatory, which is a place where people should be contemplating their next step - whether on to salvation or to hell. But some of the people in Purgatory are not yet ready, or never will be ready, to examine themselves. And so, instead, they start judging others. There is a trial whose outcome is to decide whether Judas should go to heaven or hell, but Judas is not present. Others argue for and against him and this raises the question: why do these other people care? So really, the play becomes an exploration of how we access the Judas narrative and what it says about our own fate and the choices we make."
Koloski explains that many of the characters experience "amazing journeys. "The defense attorney, for example, begins not knowing whether or not she actually believes in God or what her own fate is going to be and by the end she has had an extraordinary revelation when she confronts truths about herself." And Judas, himself, is not an allegoric figure in the play. He is a very poignant and relatable person, as are Jesus, Mother Theresa, Pontius Pilate and others who make their appearances across the fictional time frame of the work."
Koloski, who herself often works as a set designer, says that the intimate black box space at Mad Horse is ideal for this play and that set designer Meg Anderson "has completely configured the space in a way you have never seen it before. The orientation of the stage is unique with the audience sitting right alongside the jury, so that they feel directly involved in the action."
For Koloski as director, she says she hopes to provoke the audience into grappling with the issues of forgiveness and judgment. "I think what the play demonstrates is that most decent human beings will be willing to forgive others in need of forgiveness, but are often very unwilling to shine the light of scrutiny upon themselves."
Asked how Mad Horse Theatre is able to do edgy, provocative work without ever seeming pedantic, Koloski replies, "The best answer to that lies in the company itself. We read the plays together multiple times, and it has to feel right for us, and if it does, that makes it easier to tell the story in an authentic way." In fact, Koloski continues what makes working with Mad Horse Theatre special for her is "that there is a home base and a home group of people, a team already in place that makes for a constructive, supportive, fun artistic environment."
Koloski, who makes her home with her husband, lighting designer Dan Koloski, in Portland, studied playwriting and lighting design at Susquehanna University and then began her career in the Washington D.C. area, working in a variety of capacities from stage manager, to scenic artist, to lighting crew at theatres such as the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage. She met her husband when he was lighting an operatic version of The Scarlet Letter at the Kennedy Center. Together they decided to move to Boston to pursue theatre work there.
"But Boston just didn't feel right to us," Koloski confides, and "so we took the leap and came to Portland." Explaining her love for Maine's largest city, she says, "Portland is a wonderfully stimulating and challenging creative place. It is a city that is still BECOMING and feels a bit like the wild, wild West. You can start something new without people looking askance."
Among the projects that Koloski did start was Stages Youth Theater, a year-round youth theatre?company, presenting a full season of fully-staged, professional-quality all-student?productions. "I began Stages with my partner ten years ago because working with kids is the heart and soul of everything else that I do. I like to say that working with young people gives you the best of working with adults. Kids are willing to try anything and everything; they want to act like adults, while sometimes you work with adults who act like children. It is inspiring to be in that creative environment every day, and I try to employ as many Portland artists as possible to teach."
In addition to her work with the youth ensemble, Koloski was one of seven founders of Portland's Fringe Festival, whose mission is to support performance artists in the creation and presentation of innovative, quirky, unusual work. Koloski describes what she believes to be the festival's intrinsic value. "Not only do we present new work, but we offer an opportunity to create art for people who otherwise might not have the opportunity. We are all about removing the barriers to creativity and performance. This year 50% of the festival performers will be non-local, so that brings a remarkable diversity of experiences to our community and allows Portland, in turn, to share with these visiting artists what this town has to offer.
And if these two endeavors were not challenging enough, Koloski continues to work throughout the greater Portland area at numerous theatres in varied capacities. Her 2017 summer commitments include designing for the Theater at Monmouth and working at Ziggurat Theatre. She says she feels that wearing multiple hats in her theatre work gives her a "well rounded perspective. I love to collaborate with other designers or directors, and I love designing and directing myself. I see myself as a theatre artist rather than having any one particular focus."
But for the past several weeks, Koloski has been absorbed in the intensity of directing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and she is excited about the performances which begin March 23 and the opening March 24. Guirgis' drama, coming as it does after another serious and compelling production, The Nether, makes she believes an excellent segue."Judas Iscariot fits well with the other works we've done this season in terms of the theme of looking within oneself - of holding the mirror up to the audience," as she puts it. "We will ask the audience to examine not only what they are literally seeing, but its relevance for their own lives and for the world we live in.
Photos courtesy of Theater at Monmouth (headshot) and Mad Horse Theatre
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs from March 23 - April 9, 2017 at the Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher Street, South Portland, ME 207-415-3721 www.madhorse.com