Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, now in production at the Athenaeum Theatre by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, is a wildly imaginative play about the fate of the infamous man who betrayed Jesus Christ. Set in a court room in Purgatory, the case is God and the Kingdom of Heaven versus Judas Iscariot. Representing Judas is Cunningham (Julie Partyka), a skeptic who doubts God’s existence despite having a writ signed by him. The obsequious El Fayoumy (Milin Chandna) prosecutes, utilizing flattery more than logic throughout the proceedings.
Written with the edgy yet poetic dialogue Guirgis’ other plays (the Tony-nominated The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Our Lady of 121st Street) feature, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot parades a plethora of historical and Biblical figures across its stage in its search for justice and forgiveness.
Scenic Design Conjures the World of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
What does Purgatory look like? In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the angel Gloria (played by Tamara Heath) explains to the audience that Purgatory has changed as the times have changed, updating to fit the needs and style of each era. In this play, set in a corner of Purgatory named “Hope,” set designer Jeremy Hollis mixes industrial textures with some organic pieces to illustrate a world where beauty might bloom amidst the ugliness of life. Wooden shipping pallets form a raked playing space for the courtroom, and line the stage left wall. Here and there, pallets and metal girders are tucked with flowers or greenery. Upstage in his own corner rests Judas (Alexander Utz) amidst a wall of dirtied window panes illuminated by a single, hanging work light.
In Eclectic Full Contact Theatre Production, Some Characters Stand Out
Across its two acts, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot introduces us to more than thirty characters, some of them more memorably performed than others by director David Belew’s cast of fifteen.
As Judge Littlefield, company member Andrew Pond displays a fine sense of comedic timing. Amber Sallis is a welcome breath of fresh air as the no-nonsense, fast-talking, self-proclaimed “nag” Saint Monica. Aaron Lockman’s performances as Sigmund Freud and St. Thomas are equally compelling, humanizing each character rather than sticking to stereotype. Finally, Michael Woods is a clear stand out as Satan, ramping up the play’s momentum in each scene he appears. Woods’ Satan is charismatic, cunning, and cutthroat, dispatching with both Cunningham and El Fayoumy in a particularly delicious Act 2 take down.
Source Material is Biggest Strength
Guirgis’ script is smartly constructed, playing well to believers and non-believers alike as it wittily contemplates the nature of God, grace, and a host of other insights on the nature of life. There is a lyricism to the profane grit of many of these Biblical reinterpretations, as the playwright modernizes each saint’s vernacular while keeping their core beliefs in tact.
To this reviewer, while the richness of the source material is certainly present, Belew could have more capably staged the play. Choices to have characters facing Judge Littlefield upstage also made it hard to hear important pieces of the play, particularly many of the lines from Milin Chandna as El Fayoumy. Blocked in a mostly realistic way, the lack of movement from many of the actors on stage began to feel stagnant from this writer’s vantage point, lowering the stakes of the play and lengthening the pace of the play to an almost three-hour performance.
Note: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is recommended for ages 13+, due to strong language.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Regular performance times (September 22nd – October 29th) are Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, October 21st and Saturday, October 28th will have a 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. performance.
The Athenaeum Theatre
Studio Three, 2936 N. Southport Avenue
Chicago IL 60657