BWW Reviews: Court is in Session with Forum Theatre's Provocative Revival of THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT
Forget the fire and brimstone of hell. Forget the pearly white gates of heaven. Souls are tried and learn their eternal fate in a black purgatorial court room with fluorescent lights. Next up on the docket: Judas Iscariot, the man who sold out Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Forum Theatre's solid revival of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is sinfully provocative. Stephen Adly Guirgis' play unapologetically makes us question the legacy and fate of one of history's most infamous characters.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot perfectly captures the circus-like atmosphere of the celebrity trial which so often consumes cable news. There's the celebrity, parade of witnesses and attorney's all too eager to prove their ability. When it comes to celebrities, who could possibly be a bigger defendant than Judas Iscariot (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh)? What's commendable about The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is Guirgis' establishment of a premise that reintroduces us to characters that are so well-established in the pantheons of religious and human history.
Alone in a cell in purgatory Judas Iscariot sits in a catatonic trance, consumed by grief and unable to speak. After an appeal from Saint Monica (Alina Collins Maldonado) and writ of trial signed by God, Defense Attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner) brings the case of Judas Iscariot before Judge Littlefield's (Brian Hemmingsen) courtroom in Purgatory. Saints and Satan (Jim Jorgensen) all find themselves arguing whether Judas' actions amount to eternal damnation in hell or if God's love for the lowliest of creatures extends even to him?
Guirgis script is ambitious with its entertaining mix of black-comedy and dramatic examination of Judas' conscience and soul. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot crackles with electricity when the attorneys become engaged in a theological waltz with the witnesses. These exchanges, particularly the Act II scene between Cunningham and Caiaphas (Brian Hemmingsen), are exquisite in their ability to make us rethink and question the events and motives surrounding the death of Christ.
Forum Theatre has assembled a gifted ensemble of 15 actors who have to give life to more than 20 different characters. Under John Vreeke's capable direction this ensemble shines with some wonderful performances.
As the title character, Ebrahimzadeh's performance isn't so much about what Judas says but more specifically what he conveys. Guirgis has Judas only speaking in flashback scenes. For most of the show he's lying or sitting on a circular column center-stage. Ebrahimzadeh is giving a focused and stellar performance. We can feel Judas' struggle by looking into his eyes, and observing his lack of movement and response to others.
Hemmingsen portrays three characters with such skill that he makes it look effortless. Even more impressive are the impactful portrayals of two of those characters, Caiaphas and St. Matthew. Although Judge Littlfield may be the largest of his three roles, it's the emotional depth and honesty he gives St. Matthew and the passion he brings to Caiaphas that make his performances impressive.
Sparring with Hemmingsen's Caiaphas is Garner's Cunningham, whose persistent and focused demeanor allows her to bring Judas' case to trial. She's given some of the play's best scenes and with a flash of inquisitive questioning can get a rise out of anyone who crosses her on the witness stand. Thought it's interesting to observe how her line of questioning, while always focused on Judas, may also be seeking to answer ulterior questions.
Scott McCormick's performance of her legal counterpart, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Scott McCormick) isn't as successful. El-Fayoumy is supposed to be an Egyptian lawyer prone to fits of submissive groveling. McCormick's interpretation and accent makes his El-Fayoumy seem more like a waffling attorney from Soviet-era Russia.
While it may be cliché to make Satan frightening, Jorgensen brings a chilling intimacy to the character. His terrifyingly calm and blunt Act II assessment of Cunningham, Littlefield and El-Fayoumy souls puts on full-display why eternal damnation in hell is something to fear.
Other standout supporting performances include Patrick Bussink who does a wonderful job conveying Jesus' compassion and willingness to forgive. Maldonado's re-envisioning of St. Monica gives her the flavor of a Latin street diva. It's a gutsy performance in that we don't expect it and yet, it works to great success.
Finally there's Frank Moorman's Butch Honeywell, a juror who doesn't know if he's deceased. Moorman doesn't have much stage-time, but his commanding delivery of the play's final monologue gives The Last Days of Judas Iscariot one of its finest dramatic moments. His delivery is so honest and human that we genuinely feel for this man whom we just met.
Colin Bill's set design wisely uses Forum's black box space to create a court room in purgatory. The audience becomes the gallery and, combined with the mostly jet-black set, it does a wonderful job conveying the dire rulings souls may receive in this room. Bill's use of harsh fluorescent lights for the court scenes add to the grim reality of the ultimate decision that must be made in this court about Judas' fate.
Dark earth tones also play heavily into Brittany Graham's costumes which are met with varying degrees of success. Her dressing of Judas in a grey hospital tank top and skull cap was genius. It perfectly accented the atmosphere surrounding a depressed and troubled Judas. Then there was the head-scratching choice of placing St. Thomas (Jesse Terrill) in a Cleveland Indian's batting practice jersey. It has no significance to the play or character, and was not necessary.
Clocking in at three hours with one intermission, the play doesn't drag but it could be tightened. At times the courtroom banter becomes excessive and pointless. Also the consistent sexual harassment of Cunningham can seem like overkill. Still, what the play is able to accomplish is impressive.
Judging by the last two DC revivals, theatergoers may want to get their tickets in advance. The play did sellout and it's easy to see why. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is provocative in its subject matter and willingness to question such a foregone conclusion as Judas' guilt. Forum Theatre has done a terrific job reviving The Last Days of Judas Iscariot giving us a play that is both comical and ultimately moving.
Run time is 3 hours with one intermission.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays thru June 14th at Forum Theatre 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20910. For tickets, call (240) 644-1390 or purchase them online.
Graphic (L-R): Julie Garner, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Brian Hemmingsen, and Scott McCormick in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Credit: Melissa Blackall