BWW Reviews: New Company Mad Hat Stages Compelling JUDAS ISCARIOT
It's easy to understand why Stephen Adley Guirgis' 2005 Off-Broadway play "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" draws in young artists. The play addresses big themes: faith, love, and guilt, all while encased within a surrealistic courtroom in Purgatory. The language feels, at times, like a Charlton Heston biblical epic and at others like a Spike Lee joint from the early 90's. It's a weighty, yet accessible script in the same vein as Guirgis' "Jesus Hopped the A Train" and "The Motherf*cker with the Hat," both of which are popular on regional and college stages. The original Off-Broadway production had plenty of college-environment street cred as well: Phillip Seymour Hoffman directed alta-stars like Sam Rockwell, as well as Eric Bogosian, author of edgy plays in his own right.
The recent staging of "Judas Iscariot" revels in this tradition. Mad Hat is a new company, and features, for the most part, current students or recent graduates of the University of Rhode Island's theatre department. It's unclear whether this company intends on producing any further plays, but if they don't, they've done themselves well with this production.
Director Benjamin J. Hill has made able use of a difficult space at the URI Multicultural Center, and helps his rather large cast of actors to craft layered, nuanced performances. The space though, tends to swallow up some of the more subtle parts of the play, with cavernous acoustics playing havoc with the actors' voices.
That being said, it doesn't dampen the performances. Several of the actors gave outstanding turns, many of which were doubled. The doubling allowed actors to show off their versatility, like Lindsy M. Bissonnette, who doubled as wistful Henrietta Iscariot and as foul-mouthed Saint Monica, as well as Stephen Peterson, who had a brief, but memorable appearance as St. Peter before turning the crucifixion story on its head as a Pontius Pilate straight out of "Top Gun."
Guirgis' writing style lends itself to several self-contained monologues, and many of these proved to have some of the strongest moments in the show. In particular, a monologue near the end of the show for Butch Honeywell, a recently deceased man who's yet to come to terms with this fact, is expertly and subtly played by Birk Wozniak, to great effect.
But the crux of the play is the courtroom drama of Judas' appeal; think, Law and Order: Judea. In these sections of the play, it becomes a bit uneven, and drawn out; though, this was a fault of the original production as well, which clocked in at almost 3 hours. That being said, many of the play's finest performances are during the courtroom scenes, including Julia Bartoletti's touchingly honest portrayal of Mary Magdalene, and Siobhan LaPorte-Cauley's deliciously evil Satan. Extra praise is due for Daraja Hinds and Diego Guevara, who had the thankless task of pushing the play's plot forward through relatively little character development of their own. Both actors did a more than admirable job with their mountains of dialogue, and commanding the stage as well.
Finally Benjamin J. Hill pulls double duty as Judas in this production, which is a smaller role in terms of stage time than the title might suggest. Hill does an admirable job as Judas, portraying the character's remorse with a light touch, that stays away from maudlin. As a director, Hill's choice to include several short films by Mike Commendatore (who also appeared in a brief but delightful turn as Sigmund Freud, know-it-all psychiatrist) and Wilfredo Herrera Garcia added a nice change of pace and a brilliant use of multimedia. The films, which were hit and miss as far as fitting in gracefully with the staged sections, were self-contained gems - well shot, well edited, and well acted.
The play only ran a weekend, which is too bad - these folks put a ton of work in for a weekend's run, but they did it for the love of the material, and that love shone through. Hopefully, we'll hear more from Mad Hat in the future.
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" ran from 1/10-1/12 at the URI Multicultural Center.