City Paper is not for tourists
The sprawling, imaginative, hilarious, and piercingly sad play for 15 actors set in purgatory debates God’s magnanimity, while the buttoned-down, conventional two-hander debates God’s existence. Curiously, Sigmund Freud, the Stan Lee of psychoanalysis, appears in both.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which premiered in 2005, is an exhausting but genuinely inquisitive and stirring specimen of ecclesiastical provocation. Forum Theatre’s production, first staged in 2008 and now remounted with much of its original cast, spills over with at least a half-dozen world-beating performances.
Make that netherworld-beating: In Judas, Stephen Adly Guirgis, the sin- and salvation-obsessed playwright who also gave us Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Motherfucker With the Hat, takes us to purgatory to attend the appeal of the man who sold Jesus Christ to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver, then hung himself from an olive branch in shame.
The presiding judge (bearded, barrel-chested, boomy-voiced Brian Hemmingsen, never more authoritative), whose own transit papers to heaven have been pending since the Civil War, won’t even hear the case until Judas’ tenacious attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner, who’d be commanding enough without the five-inch heels, so: respect), returns with a writ signed by God himself. The witnesses include Mother Teresa; saints Matthew, Peter, and Thomas; Caiaphas the Elder; noted cigar aficionado Dr. Freud; noted germophobe Pontius Pilate; and noted produce advocate Satan. The devil is, like the song says, a man of wealth and taste or at least one of those, sporting a white Gucci suit. Jim Jorgensen gives him a yen for a blandishment and brutal insight that makes him as serpentine a, well, serpent as ever convinced man he doesn’t exist. “I don’t actively compete for souls,” Jorgensen demurs, his thick eyebrows arched heavenward like palms pressed together in prayer.
He doesn’t have to. The question of free will, more than Judas’s guilt or innocence, is what’s on trial here. Guirgis, who grew up Catholic, explains in the play’s introduction that he wrote it out of his disquiet from a young age over what we were meant to learn from Judas’ story. The man is a pariah whose name is synonymous with “betrayal,” and yet he was fulfilling the prophecy of Scripture when he committed his defining sin. Save for his lawyer, everyone here detests him.
Well, not everyone. Patrick Bussink, dressed in camo pants and a Red Cross T-shirt, has a couple of quietly tremor-inducing scenes as Jesus, whom we first see trying to comfort Judas’ mother (Annie Houston, who gets the show’s bravura opening monologue and then is silent for the remaining 170 minutes). Later, Jesus reminds us he remains the constant companion of Humanity’s Most Reviled. “I’m helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night’s sleep,” he tells us. “I was in that cave with Osama, and on that plane with Mohamed Atta.”
Guirgis is a New York City native; 9/11 was fresh in his memory as he wrote. I wonder what it means that he gives both attorneys Arabic-sounding names. Representing God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth in these proceedings is Yusef Akbar Wahid Al-Nassar Gamel El-Fayoumy, a flattery-larding huckster played with comic excitability by Scott McCormick.
Though most actors have only a handful of scenes (and some just one), all stand in for the jury, keeping their seats on either side of Round House Silver Spring’s black box for the entire show. Colin Bills has placed a half-dozen vertical fluorescent tubes behind the bench and a spherical dais in the center, where the accused (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) sits or lays, seeming to writhe in a hell more private than the one to which he may soon be banished.
That commitment isn’t limited to the actors. Including the 10-minute intermission, Judas Iscariot runs a full three hours, and transfixing though it is, you feel the length. One wishes Guirgis might’ve been persuaded to pare some of the good-but-inessential stuff from Act 1—such as the exposition-spouting Angel Gloria, whose role is mainly to explain how this conception of purgatory works—so we’d feel sharper for the seismic events of the second half, when Pontius Pilate takes the stand, as embodied by the versatile Frank Britton in full Samuel L. Jackson mode. His scene recalls Col. Jessup’s climactic testimony from A Few Good Men. Both are figures of power and pragmatism, unapologetic when they resort to Code Reds or crucifixions to obtain the results expected of them. They’ve both got bosses, and the Roman Empire and the United States Marine Corps probably have a roughly equal tolerance for failure or dissent.
Britton fell prey to a brutal robbery in Silver Spring Monday night as he was walking toward a taxi after Judas’ opening-night performance. The irony of an actor giving a performance as strong as any of the dozen-plus I’ve seen from him in a piece that explores the origins of evil becoming the victim of a crime mere hours after its official opening is not small.
Nora Achrati has several roles, including Mary Magdalene, but has the most fun as Mother Teresa, whom she plays as Yoda, basically, hunched and speaking in cherubic pieties salted with piercing candor. When she’s given an assisted listening device in the form a giant pair of DJ cans, she’s even got the green guy’s ears—the better to absorb El-Fayoumy’s compliments. “If prosecution is through flirting with the beatified iconic virgin, we could, perhaps, begin?” Garner sighs. Great stuff, but the tears that came at the end were not of laughter. This is the funniest play that will break your heart this year.
After Judas Iscariot, anything would seem modest. Freud’s Last Session is a more conventional and decorous work that takes the form of an imaginary real-time conversation between a famous atheist and famous evangelist. Over and done in a slender 80 minutes, the length of Judas’ first act, it’s set in the first psychoanalyst’s London office (handsomely rendered by scenic designer Deb Booth) in 1938, about a year before he took his own life, aged 83 and suffering from excruciating and inoperable oral cancer. As Churchill takes to the radio to help Britons steel themselves for the Luftwaffe’s imminent attack, Freud receives a visit from C.S. Lewis, who was nearing 40 and had only recently converted to Christianity. (A paper box he carries with him turns out to contain a gas mask.)
Rick Foucheux is nearly unrecognizable behind Freud’s white beard and round spectacles. He and steady hand Todd Scofield, as Lewis, both seem to relish their accents, Austrian and Oxfordian, respectively.
“You might argue God did a good job with the sunset, but with consciousness he failed miserably,” Freud taunts, echoing an observation by Satan in the Guirgis play, before venerating “my personal saint, Charles Darwin.” Lewis gives as good as he gets, proclaiming the Gospels too clumsy to be fiction.
There’s nothing academic about the debate. Freud’s quality of life has eroded along with his mouth—he must wear a painful, foul-smelling prosthetic insert—but with the bombs about to fall, each man’s readiness to meet his maker, or his lack of one, is tested.
Serge Seiden, who directed Guirgis’s Motherfucker for his longtime artistic home the Studio Theatre last year, keeps the discussion lively and delivers the grace note with aplomb. Only in Judas’ breathtaking company does it feel a bit tame.