At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
So that the three of them tormented thus.
To him in front the biting was as naught
Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.
"That soul up there which has the greatest pain,"
The Master said, "is Judas Iscariot; With head
inside, he plies his legs without."
-Inferno, Dante, Canto 34
The Ninth Circle of Hell is referred to several times in Company One’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, but Judas gets off easier in the hands of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis than he did under the pen of Dante. In the Inferno, Dante saves the inner circle for traitors, and Judas sits in horrifying punishment alongside Brutus and Cassius. Forever being chewed on by jagged teeth and with his back being scraped by the claws of Satan, Judas freezes with other famous betrayers.
They say every generation gets the hell, heaven and purgatory it deserves. For the Hell of this Judas, Mr. Guirgis has put the wayward apostle in a catatonic stupor, while the denizens of Heaven, (including Pontius Pilate,) eat sushi and play golf. Most appropriate though, (if not slightly derivative of films like Albert Brooks Defending Your Life and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice,) the Purgatory of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot consists of endless, bureaucratic litigation. In this no man’s land, souls work off their absolution as either a member of the court or, even more horrifying, an eternal member of the jury pool.
The plot revolves around a new appeal, brought before a cantankerous judge (George Saulnier) by an aggressive and ambitious defense attorney named Fabiana Cunningham (Noel Armstrong.) She brings a writ, signed by Saint Peter, to appeal Judas’s sentence to the Ninth Circle of Hell. And here starts a carnival of arguments, star-witnesses, surprising revelations and even a "video playback" of Judas’s attempt to reneg on his deals with the Romans and the Sanhedrin. All of this makes for an enjoyable evening with surprises popping up regularly. Unfortunately, all this is at the expense of driving the drama forward with appropriate force.
Mr. Guirguis opens up great avenues, ideas and arguments, but it is almost as if he is insecure in his considerable talents and feels as if he must overcompensate. Almost every single scene in the play goes on longer than it needs too; jokes are repeated four times in one scene, dramatic beats that were arced and resolved beautifully come back and start all over again, and clever attacks on ideas resurface regularly without significant changes to tactic or strategy.
The multiple roles necessary for this endeavour are imbued with great detail and clever shadings by the ensemble. Greg Maraio’s Sigmund Freud, complete with phallic cigar, is a wonderful cameo. The defense asks, "Now, Mr. Freud, you are known as the father of Modern Psychiatry?" Mr. Freud replies without a trace of insecurity, "I AM modern phsychiatry!" Later, Mr. Maraio returns, completely transormed into a party-loving, midwest community college teacher, who serves as the jury foreman, and delivers a touching coda to the play. But at almost eleven o’clock in the evening, this monologue is two long by half and only repeats something we had just seen dramatized effectively not a minute earlier.
It is a testament to Guirgis’s skills that he makes these repetitions as enjoyable as possible, but as all of his characters and ideas add up, even his divine talent cannot seem to gather his sheep back to the pen. As the testimonies, cross-examinations and revelations spin off into scenes from Judas’s life and amusing monologues from some of the Apostles, we keep forgetting what is at stake in the trial. Who wins? What is winning? If it is an appeal, why is there a jury? What are the answers the attorneys expect from their witnesses?
Robert Brustein has hailed Guirgis as possibly another Eugene O’Neill, and there is the undeniable sensation when watching a Guirgis play that you are in the presence of a master in the making. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, like Our Lady of 121st Street , sings with unique voices, and the playwright is unafraid of dramatizing large ideas and questions and leaving them unresolved. Will Stackman, in his review of this Company One production observes that there are many entertaining, but extraneous, monologues and set pieces that are obviously written specifically for Guirgis’s LAByrinth Theatre colleagues. This free-wheeling style is undeniably enjoyable for the cast and the audience, but eventually it submarines both.
During the course of the evening, Satan, played with perfect Rat-Pack perfection by company Artistic Director Shawn LaCount is called to the stand twice, the second time leading to what should be the penultimate stand-off between Defense Attorney Cunningham and the Prince of Darkness for the soul of Judas. Instead, Guirgis has so much going on at this point of the play that this talented ensemble has to work to the point of straining to register the slightest tick on the dramatic and intellectual seismograph.
Another example is the brilliant creation of El Fayoumy, the prosecuting attorney whose loquacious orations, spoken with hilarious broken English, are astonishingly inventive. But, late in the proceedings, as the actor Mason Sands, (who should be seeing a supporting actor nomination come awards season,) launches into yet another of El Fayoumy’s three minute monologues, peppered humorously as it is with equal parts procedural jargon and ass-kissing toadiness, the inventiveness starts to become slightly distracting.
Eventually, one can't shake the feeling that the playwright is just buying time, that he has not quite figured out how all of this fits in to the play. Perhaps this is emblematic of our era.
Though the funeral parlor of Our Lady of 121st Street may be a descendant of Harry Hope's Saloon in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, the purgatory of Judas Iscariot called to my mind the universes of Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner. As our millenium has passed and the world doesn't seem to be getting any easier with regards to questions of morality and spirituality, dramatists seem to want to pull great figures of history into our current world, or at least wrestle with their ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson discerned the highest literary genius as the effortless ability to juggle images of nature. It would seem in our day and age we are all after the ability to juggle ideas.
In Seattle, the ACT theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Mitzi's Abortion, in which Thomas Aquinas appears to a military wife who is contemplating an abortion. Mr. Guirgis gives us Freud, Christ, and Mother Theresa, while the voices of Eliot, Auden and others seep into Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Almost like Odysseus in Hades, we conjure the dead to try and receive direction home.