BWW Review: Searing LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT at Mad Horse
In one of its largest, most ambitious productions in recent seasons, Mad Horse Theatre has mounted a searing account of Stephen Adly Guirgis's riveting drama, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The sixteen-member cast under the direction of Stacey Koloski forms an intense, cohesive ensemble to recount this imaginary narrative about the fate of Christ's betrayer and to grapple with huge questions about guilt and salvation, doubt and faith, blame and forgiveness.
Set in Purgatory, Guirgis' play employs a cast of historic and fictional characters who set in motion a trial to determine Judas' ultimate fate, but as the tense, fast-paced drama evolves, these proceedings are as much about Iscariot as it is about each of the other individuals' own soul-searching, as they hold Judas' actions up as a mirror to their own failings. Defying accepted formulas about length, Guirgis' taut, verbally dense, and intellectually complex drama holds the audience in rapt attention for nearly three hours. With the conceit of a courtroom drama as its structure, the playwright alternates powerful exchanges between lawyers and witnesses with monologues and memory scenes by individual characters remembering their interaction with Judas. Guirgis' wit is razor sharp, and his gift for language is rhythmic and propulsive - often employing a kind of rap beat. Numerous riffs, such as St. Monica's account of her interaction with Judas, cast the spell of street-wise poetry. Moreover, the playwright is able to embody his philosophical questions and concepts in colorful, highly contemporary characters, each of whom has an appealing life of his own.
The intimate space at Mad Horse allows for the audience to be seated right next to the actors and immerses the spectators in the drama itself. Meg Anderson's cold, barren, gray set and Corey Anderson's cool, blue, purple palette of lighting suggests the existential void in which the drama takes place. Lauren Tudor contributes clever character-defining costumes, while Jacob Cote adds an eerie dimension in his sound design.
Director Stacey Koloski shapes the play with an unsparing honesty, alternating fierce conflicts with lyrical moments and pushing the actors to their emotional depths. She propels the action at a rapid pace and navigates the twists and turns so agilely that the audience remains in suspense until the very last moment.
Each of the sixteen cast members has a solo moment, and together they play as a well-tuned orchestra. In the title role Nick Schroeder gives a harrowing performance which probes the extremes of Judas' emotional state - from catatonic despair to manically explosive outbursts. Mark Rubin gives a wickedly funny, sharply satiric account of the flamboyant, preening prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy and makes an excellent foil for the outwardly cool, tough but inwardly fragile defense attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, played to the hilt by Janice Gardner. Moderating their fireworks, Burke Brimmer portrays Judge Littlefield as a sardonic and beleaguered (and he also turns in two carefully defined other performances as St. Matthew and Caiaphas), while Sean Senior is an eager-to-please Bailiff.
Among the various witnesses, Christine Louise Marshall creates several poignant moments as Judas' mother Henrietta Iscariot, while Tootie Van Reenen does a lovely job of humanizing Mother Teresa, at the same time that she conveys a kind of luminous wisdom. Marie Stewart Harmon delivers some of the more reflective moments of the play as a touching Mary Magdalene and Gloria, a soul in Purgatory earning her wings. Erica Murphy's virtuoso turn as St.Monica is nothing short of brilliant - funny, moving, poetic.
Conjuring up several other historical figures in unconventional terms, Tony Reilly gives an amusing account of a pompous Sigmund Freud, whose discomfort is clear when his firmly held beliefs are challenged. Brent Askari is an ideal Satan - wily, sharp or honey-tongued by turns, and possessed of a laser-like, lethal knack for telling the inconvenient truth. Jason LeSaldo makes an elusive, gentle Jesus, whose presence and light lend the play and Purgatory some of its most luminous moments. Kahlil LeSaldo gives moving accounts of Simon the Zealot and St. Peter; Caleb Aaron Coulthard is an arrogant Pontius Pilate, and Mandela Gardner is a gentle, awkward, boyish Matthias of Galilee and a remorseful St. Thomas. Finally, Jody McColman has a quiet, introspective monologue in the penultimate moments of the play as Butch Honeywell, a soul who articulates the meaning of falling from grace and the need to take responsibility for one's actions.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a spellbinding theatrical experience that is as challenging as it is rewarding. Coming on the heels of Mad Horse's production of The Nether, it helps to cement this little company's reputation for being a brilliant and fearless ensemble. Moreover, it is evidence of the theatre's willingness to stretch itself and its resources and take on larger projects.
Photographs courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs from March 23- April 9, 2017 at Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher St., South Portland, ME 207-747-4148 www.madhorse.com