Theater Review: “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” — Pray for the Devil
By Erik Nikander
A script with this many characters buzzing about demands a strong cast — fortunately, Hub Theatre’s terrific ensemble is more than up to the task.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Steven Bogart. Staged by Hub Theatre Company at the First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, Boston, MA, through November 23.
The sanctuary at the First Church in Boston is an unusual space. What begins with conventional rows of pews opens into an off-kilter puzzle of a room, with balconies jutting out at sharp angles and the space’s rear walls reaching so high up you have to crane your neck to spot the ceiling. The Hub Theatre Company’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot transforms this hall, meant for spiritual gathering, into a pit of despair. For much of the production, Judas (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia) sits at the foot of these walls in stony silence. It’s hard not to be pulled into the infamous villain’s hopelessness. What chance is there that his prayers will be answered?
He might have more of a shot than he thinks. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play is difficult to sum up concisely, but it revolves around a trial that is to decide the fate of Judas’s soul. His case is argued by Fabiana Cunningham (Lauren Elias), one of Purgatory’s brightest young defense lawyers, against prosecutor El Fayoumy (Maurice Palmer). They call a slew of cultural figures as witnesses, each offering a take on who Judas is and what his betrayal represents. We hear from Mary Magdalene (Enosa Ogbeide), St. Thomas (Jon Vellante), Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud (both Arthur Waldstein) — even Satan (Victor Shopov) kicks in his two cents. The result is a study of the perplexing messiness of guilt and redemption, set in a courtroom that spans just about all of time and space.
A script with this many characters buzzing about demands a strong cast — fortunately, Hub’s terrific ensemble is more than up to the task. Guided by director Steven Bogart, they skillfully handle the play’s riotously funny stretches as well as its moments of earnest soul-searching. Among the stand-outs, Shopov gives the Devil a spark of charismatic warmth — the demon can go from charming to terrifying at the flip of a switch. Blyss Cleveland’s effervescent performance turns Saint Monica into a spitfire of tough love. As jury member Butch Honeywell, Dan Prior isn’t given very much to do throughout most of the piece, but his closing monologue, addressed to Judas, is deeply moving.
Last Days is a fairly lengthy play, running for about two and a half hours with a brief intermission. But Guirgis’s clever writing and the ensemble’s performing chops combine to keep the courtroom antics engaging. The stakes raised by Judas’s case are high, and they bring questions to mind that are well worth considering. Who really deserves redemption? Is there a transgression so great that a person can’t ever find forgiveness? The script doesn’t embrace easy moral absolutes — each character has their own strengths and failings. The judge (Robert Orzalli), for instance, is supposed to be the impartial arbiter of the proceedings. But he’s short-tempered throughout the trial and clearly biased against Judas — not to mention that he shares a chummy repartee with Satan. Though the play suggests there are realms of Heaven and Hell, the line between damnation and salvation is as blurry here (wherever “here” is) as in the everyday world.
Guirgis also makes it clear that the true battle to redeem Judas’s soul isn’t taking place in this metaphysical court, but within his heart. Mancinas-Garcia spends much of the play stewing in a catatonic moral stalemate, but there are scenes that suggest that Judas doesn’t believe he’s worthy of salvation. Even when Jesus (Jaime Hernàndez) reaches out to him in a gesture of love and forgiveness, Judas can’t let go of his overwhelming regret. As theater, Last Days has its weak points; its cavalcade of monologues and cameos from historical figures sometimes takes precedence over character development. For instance, an intriguing look at Cunningham’s background and motivations is over practically before it begins. Still, despite the occasional flightiness of the storytelling, Guirgis serves up some genuine insights about the ambiguities of human nature.
Justin Lahue’s set design makes artful use of the space’s preexisting visual character and spatial depth, providing Bogart and his team of actors plenty of opportunities for movement. They take full advantage of this freedom, immersing the audience in the action, embracing a free flow that works well with the script’s epic storytelling. The layout isn’t perfect; from this critic’s seats, it was difficult to see the jury box until the second act. Still, the visually dynamic staging, aided by Chelsea Kerl’s colorful costumes and the evocative lighting design of Chris Bocchiaro, helps keep this Last Days engaging to watch. This is a show with an excess of moving parts; the cast and crew keep everything running like clockwork.
By turns meditative, vulgar, witty, and heartfelt, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a show that lodges in the mind. Hub Theatre’s artists tackle the piece’s unruly nature with verve — there’s plenty here for an adventurous audience member to chew on. Even without considering the considerable merits of Guirgis’s script, the performers are consistently engrossing. The play’s ending feels a tad inconclusive, though the choice makes sense — redemption is rarely wrapped up in a neat little bow. It may not provide all the answers, but Last Days proves that theater still has the gumption to ask meaningful questions.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.