BWW Review: THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT
On Friday night The Gravity Players opened a courtroom comedy and exploration of faith, THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, to a lively audience. Set in the Court of Purgatory, a place of redemption and a "waiting list" between Heaven and Hell, the audience was to witness trials regarding sinners' placement in Purgatory, as many desired to appeal their judgment to move on to Heaven. Judge Littlefield, played by Paul Menzel, demands Bailiff (Philip Hays) to call the cases, "God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Thorseen the Implacable", "God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Benedict Arnold", and finally "God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Judas Iscariot".
This setting proved beneficial to the concept of the play, as familiar witnesses such as Mother Teresa (Patricia Duran), Mary Magdalene (Candice D'Meza), Sigmund Freud (Josh Morrison), and Pontius Pilate (Josh Morrison) were called to the stand. Throughout the questioning, the audience was able to hear historically accurate testimonies by these individuals as dramatic and powerful attorneys Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Courtney Lomelo) and Yusef El-Fayoumy (Luis Galindo) eloquently and ruthlessly questioned their witnesses to attempt to fight for and against mercy for Judas.
The Founders of Gravity Players aimed to leave the audience asking themselves such questions as "Where are you? Why are you? Who deserves forgiveness? Does God exist? Is despair birthed out of free will?" and "Is love free or conditional?". Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis chose to craft the asking of these questions in what the Gravity Players described as "bold muscular language, intense emotional stories, and bawdy irreverent humor". While these elements did ultimately serve to deliver the message of love, mercy, and forgiveness that the play aimed to, perhaps Guirgis approached this erroneously.
As a Catholic, I was looking forward to seeing this well-known Bible story I had heard since I was little play out in a comedic theatrical setting. However, the foul language and irreverent "jokes" in the play did not seem necessary in the telling of this story. The friend I had brought as a plus one to this event stated this feeling in saying that the parts she felt were most compelling were not the vulgar, overdone, inappropriate ones, but rather the moments where they displayed the Truth as it is, the Truth. The disrespectful nature of many of the jokes did not create a relatable tone for the characters, but rather seemed to develop a disconnect. It felt wrong to witness revered religious figures speaking and acting the way they were according to the script, creating dissonance in my mind rather than comfortable relevancy to the characters.
I completely agreed with my friend's statement, as I did not find St. Monica cursing and speaking obscenely as a way to humanize her, but rather as a loss of disrespect and failure to approach her saintly nature with reverence. The script called for language, innuendo, and incongruous jokes that can be humorous when applied to the correct characters, but not necessarily when involving Fathers of the Church, Saints, and respected religious figures.
The highlight of Act One, titled "Domine Adiuva Incredulitatem Meam" translating roughly to "Lord, help my unbelief" was the attempt to make the characters more relatable to the audience member by showing their human weaknesses and faults, causing the audience think themselves about their own humanity and judgment in the afterlife. Watching a courtroom scene that decides the fate of what is considered one of the most significant sins, Judas' betrayal of Jesus, certainly made the audience think about what their own trial might look like, if this were the structure of Purgatory in reality. It was a comical way to assess one's own wrongdoing and see well-known Biblical characters in an amusing conventional way.
Act Two was where the play found its footing, as we learned more about the characters and witnessed other Biblical figures speak without as much unnecessary crude humor and language. Hearing St. Thomas "Doubting Thomas", played by Philip Hays, articulate his perspective on Judas in a compassionate, thoughtful manner was a highlight. These moments were the moments that made the play worth attending, and I believe they accomplished the purpose of the play far more effectively than the ill-mannered and irreverent approach that Guirdis had also written into the script. Jesus (Roc Living) made compelling appearances throughout the show and displayed the love, compassion, and forgiveness that I hoped we would get to see. Act Two concluded on a humbling, reverent moment that left the audience in silence and awe-- a tone I wish could have been incorporated more throughout the work, but that was very redeeming in my opinion of the play in the end.
With ten actors playing a total of twenty-three roles, there was no shortage of theatrical skill. A standout performance was delivered by Courtney Lomelo, portraying Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, a troubled soul residing in Purgatory attempting to bring mercy to Judas Iscariot's name as his lawyer. Satan, played by Jeff Miller, taunts her by bringing up memories of her struggles with bulimia, rape, failed relationships, and lack of love from her parents, in the end declaring that Fabiana is incapable of being loved since she cannot give love. Lomelo's performance reminded me of all humans, all sinners, in the way that she fought so hard against the acceptance of love and Truth for herself, while fighting relentlessly for this mercy and grace for someone else. Oftentimes we fail to believe we deserve the forgiveness that we would so easily give others. Lomelo's character legally was fighting for Judas, but the audience was able to pick up on her personal, desperate fight for understanding and love as well. Lomelo portrayed this complex character seamlessly, bearing all layers of her to the audience. The audience got to know the composed, relentless, and flawlessly articulate attorney Fabiana Cunningham, but more importantly I believe the audience was able to identify with her feelings of rejection, brokenness, and confusion with God.
THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT by the Gravity Players Theatre Group opened on August 11 and will run through September 3 at the Chelsea Market Theatre, 4617 Montrose Blvd in Houston. Performances will be Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm, with matinee performances Sundays at 2:00pm. General admission is $27.00 and there is a student discount available. To purchase tickets for THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, visit the Gravity Players website at www.spacecitytix.com/gravityplayers .
Photo Credit to Pin Lim.