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REVIEW: 'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'

March 20, 2015

How to make sense of the seemingly contradictory notions of a god who loves unconditionally and a god who would administer a punishment of eternal damnation? That’s a question wrestled with for ages by theologians, mourners, and undergraduates hanging on late at night in dorm lounges.

It’s a question that drives Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2005 play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” being brought to (after)life at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project (through April 4).

As the title suggests, this kangaroo courtroom drama, set in Purgatory, examines the choices made by the Bible’s most famous bad guy. In the play, Judas’ actions are not in question. Neither the 30 pieces of silver nor the kiss of identification are in dispute. It’s about intent—and appropriate punishment. Was turning over Jesus truly a betrayal or the necessary steps to fulfill his savior/friend’s intent? And is forgiveness an option either way?

Is Hell without parole the proper sentence? And what role should remorse play if, indeed, Judas is remorseful?

To its credit, Guirgis’ play—and this production, directed by Bill Wilkison—manages to be both playful and deadly serious. Sitcom jokes and salacious silliness stand toe-to-toe with ultra-serious moments. The Purgatorial junkyard courtroom (the witness chair is a gutted TV) is a place where just about anything is admissible. It’s where Judas’ mother can recount the feeling of digging her own son’s grave and St. Monica can taunt Judas with references to Olive Garden and “hanging around.” Everything in the eclectic mix doesn’t go together smoothly, but why be concerned when the abundant buffet of ideas and characters keeps getting replenished in such interesting ways?

Wisdom Tooth—now the theater company in residence at the IndyFringe Building—has gathered a strong cast, even more impressive when you consider the show requires a company of 17.  On the final preview night I attended (with a small audience, which I’m certain tempered the laughs), some of the early scenes were a bit tentative. A one-set show of this length—about three hours with intermission—is bound to take some energy dips and this one does as well.

But there’s a lean-forward moment around just about every corner, thanks in part to strong work from Ryan Ruckman as St. Matthew, the presiding Judge, and particularly as Caiaphas, weighing the differences between his actions and those of Judas as he refuses to make eye contact with the female defense attorney. And from David Fuller as both Sigmund Freud and the very different St. Thomas.

Andrea Heiden brings a deep sadness and truth to Mary Magdalene while Ben Scheutz’s propellant comic energy as the prosecuting attorney helps keep the show from bogging down.

Above—or below—all is Matt Roland as an (under)world-weary Satan, bringing a deadly combination of masterful comic timing, intellectual superiority, and condescending exhaustion to his testimony. His scenes are home to some of .Guirgis’ strongest writing.

There may, of course, be some turned off by the very notion of questioning the literal truth of the Bible. (These folks tend not to have a problem with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” but that’s another matter). For me, the unwieldy but rewarding play took me back to unwieldy-but-rewarding books I once devoured, such as Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man” and James Morrow’s “Only Begotten Daughter”—books that risked the label of “sacrilege” in their search in their bold wrestling with religious questions. These fictions took religion seriously while not being afraid to be entertaining in the process. If such approaches offend you on principle (or if you have trouble laughing at Mother Theresa), then by all means stay away.

For the rest, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” offers a return to those late-night college conversation sessions—where bold, sometimes incomplete statements could be made, when ideas were as real as people, and where the ideology of one’s neighbors mattered less than their ability to offer feisty arguments. 

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