SALT LAKE CITY — Is anyone purely good or purely evil? Are we the product of our circumstances or are we simply pieces in a destined plan for mankind that is pre-determined?. Does free will play into our actions and motives or does Satan or God’s influence steer our choices? And what about mental illnesses or conditions we are born with? Do they factor into our decisions and actions? Such questions and discussions have been stirred and debated among world religions for centuries.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis examines such topics with a balanced perspective, through the medium of a court case set in purgatory in which Judas Iscariot (Nick Diaz) is brought to stand trial before Judge Littlefield (W. Lee Daily) for his crimes. Both the defense attorney, an attorney “lacking in confidence” named Yusef El-Fayoumy (Eric Leckman) and prosecuting attorney, a modern day woman named Fabian Aziza Cunningham (Ana Lemke), present their cases, summing witnesses from Henrietta Iscariot (Tiffany Greathouse) to Mother Teresa (Natalie Keezer) to Pontius Pilot (Chris Harvey) and even Satan himself (William Cooper Howell). Throughout the story, each witness is examined and cross-examined, showing flaws and goodness in each person. Yes, even Mother Teresa had a few skeletons in her closet, and Satan can be seen as a necessary evil in the greater plan. And the question remains, and is left to the audience to determine: whether Judas Iscariot is guilty and what his eternal fate should be. Evidence is presented to defend his actions through making a case for mental illness and proving that his actions were a necessary part in the greater plan and salvation of mankind. Yet, other evidence shows his actions were pre-meditated and planned, thanks largely to the testimony of Caiaphas the Elder (Mark Macey).
The production itself suffered from pacing and shaping problems in the first act, but found its stride near intermission. The performances were uneven, ranging from fantastic scenes and portrayals of various characters by seasoned actors to amateur and underdeveloped portrayals. This lack of balance and inconsistent style to the characters kept the production from reaching greatness. With a large cast, and the courtroom style creation of the plot, the production was a true ensemble piece that gave most actors approximately equal stage time. My biggest complaint of the evening is with the inconsistent style and missed comedy and I wish director Lucas Bybee could have helped his actors to find the humor throughout the production. The dark humor is carefully interwoven throughout Guirgis’s script, yet some actors were able to successfully execute this humor, while others had many missed moments. This made The Last Days of Judas Iscariot have an uneven feel and unclear style. However, Bybee did implore a variety of creativity in creating the set and ambiance of the show. I was impressed with how he transformed the theater into a courtroom setting with the audience on each side of the room and the action in the middle, with jury members mingled throughout the audience. This creative element helped to draw the audience directly into the production and become part of the story, even allowing actors to acknowledge audience members at certain times.
At the helm of the pacing problems were the two attorneys, played by Lemke and Leckman. They had the lion’s share of the dialogue and were the scene partners to most of the other characters that they called as witnesses. Though Lemke had the appropriate look and attitude of a modern day feminist attorney, her lack of depth and missed comedy really flattened many scenes. I wanted much more emotion and variety in her performance that was simply not there. I felt that I got everything I would see from her in the near three-hour production within the first ten minutes of the show. This was most evident in what should have been an emotionally charged moment, where Satan twists Lemke’s questioning back to her, digging up painful moments from her past. Lemke’s emotionally subdued performance fell flat and weakened this scene immensely. Leckman as the defense attorney also missed much of the comedy throughout the production and the supposed attraction to Lemke was only evident due to the writing, leading to many muddied scenes. Daily, as the confederate general turned weathered judge, had some great moments and gave an energetic performance, though his accent was inconsistent and slipped in and out of a deep southern drawl to a distracting Shakespearean English intonation. With these actors onstage almost the entire performance, the play struggled to reach its full potential.
By contrast, there were some phenomenal performances. As the title character, Nick Diaz deserves much praise for his nuanced and engaging creation of Judas Iscariot. He was believable as a mentally disturbed and guilt ridden person, bellowing in self-despair. Diaz’s scenes with Satan (William Cooper Howell) and Jesus of Nazareth (Brandon Pearson) were the strongest scenes of the production. Pearson gave a sincere and compassionate performance of Christ that was especially moving as he showed kindness to Judas in purgatory, especially when washing Judas’s feet and telling him that he loved him. The greatest laughs of the evening came from Howell’s performance as Satan. His flare, mannerisms, and well-developed creation of Satan were highlights. I appreciated his bold portrayal in all of his scenes. Chris Harvey as Pontious Pilot delivered another outstanding performance of the evening. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit with slick backed hair giving a convincing portrayal as a mob boss. His interactions with the other actors were perfect and and appropriate, given his character’s background and relationships with others on stage. I also enjoyed Sam McGinnis’s performance as Simon the Zealot. His Bob-Marley, hippy, peace loving/weed smoking creation of Simon was hilarious. Mark Macey as the smug “Brooklyn Jewish” Caiaphas was also perfect. His accent and physically accentuated the humor and made a very clear and dimensional character, encompassing tender moments of reflection on the persecution the Jews through history, and as a plot point gave convincing arguments for Judas’s guilt.
The set design by Lucas Bybee was abstract, interesting, and tied the modern and ancient worlds together perfectly, giving a timeless feel to the setting of the play (very appropriate for purgatory). The costume design by Michael Nielsen was outstanding and helped to create the modern representation and creation of each of the biblical characters. Danny Dunn’s lighting design captured the mood of the production and transitioned seamlessly between the courtroom and flashback scenes.
On the whole The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was thought-provoking piece. I came away from the production continuing to think and reflect on the themes and questions raised. Despite some dragging scenes and a few weak performances, there is some greatness in the show. Plus, the fantastic script is well worth exploring. For those looking for new and fresh theatre this production is a good hoice. When it comes to verdicts, the play’s powerful conclusion examines ideas of mercy and justice, good and evil, and right and wrong, and left me conflicted: it is difficult to render judgment. In the end, I came to believe that even the most detestable acts are often only part of a larger story—the ultimate struggle between justice and mercy in which a mediator is crucial in reconciliation.
THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT runs through May 17 at the Rose Wagner Studio Theatre. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased through ArtTix at 801-355-ARTS or www.arttix.org.