Few figures in Biblical history have inspired more controversy than Judas Iscariot, a disciple and one of the original Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. Through the millennia, analyses of Judas’ life, motivations, and place in Christian history have spawned a seemingly infinite amount of interpretations. Judas, Robert Patrick’s hard-hitting but but rarely-performed drama, is a very modern version of an ancient story– and in 2018, it’s as timeless as ever. At the heart of Judas, originally written in 1973, is the story about the titular character’s wrenching spiritual/emotional transition from apostle to history’s most famous betrayer. The controversial play is brought to powerful life by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and is now playing at New York City’s Wild Project, with all the title character’s complexities intact. But Judas the man’s story is only one theme in Patrick’s provocative piece. The subjects of politics, power, and loyalty that color the play are as relevant in these turbulent times as ever before. This is most evident in the characters of Pontius Pilate (Craig Smith) and his younger protegee Judas (Josh Tyson). The pair’s conversations seem eerily similar to the manifestos of our modern (and no less larger-than-life) political characters 45 years after Patrick’s play was first written– and, most tellingly, almost 2,000 years after the original story took place.
Judas opens with Pilate, governor of the Roman province of Judea, observing the Holy Land with binoculars from a tall, heavily-guarded tower. The suit-wearing, imperious-looking Pilate, with assistance from his loyal, heel-clicking assistant Klautus (Josh F.S. Moser), has the task of maintaining Rome’s authority over the Judeans while keeping the peace. Pilate is depicted as something of an atheist (“I wish there was a God I believed in”, he says at one point.), but in actuality, political power is his real deity– with the late Julius Caesar being the closest human incarnation. While blatantly condescending about the monotheistic faith of the Jews, this prefect possesses a strange admiration (bordering on fascination) for their religious dedication. Pilate allows the citizens to maintain their religion, albeit as something of a tranquilizer. With the sounds of an angry crowd rising up the tower, King Herod (Jim Sterling) frantically visits Pilate after ordering the death of a holy man, which incites the anger of a Jewish mob. Shortly afterward, Herod himself gets killed– specifically, torn to pieces. Pilate chooses the handsome Jewish student Judas to be his new apprentice of sorts, hinting at a possible position of power for the intelligent but conflicted young man.
Meanwhile, in a more tranquil rural setting, we meet Mary (Elise Stone), Joseph (Craig Anthony Bannister), and their son Jesus (Jeffrey Marc Alkins)– all dressed in peasant clothes. Jesus, now an intelligent and charismatic young man, has realized that he has a larger calling requiring him to look beyond his family’s simple life. However, he is conflicted about his mission as a prophet. Mary knows that her son is, shall we say, “special”– although the humble Joseph is not quite so sure. Jesus leaves for Jerusalem, and it’s only a matter of time before he develops a fiercely loyal following as a new prophet with his mantras: “All men are brothers”. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love one another, as I have loved you.” One of Jesus’ most enthusiastic new devotees, Peter (Ariel Estrada), emerges as one of his most dedicated followers. Peter meets Judas in the streets and serendipitously recognizes him as a fellow apostle, even though Judas doesn’t quite realize it yet (Judas calls Peter a “superstitious rabble”.). Judas is drawn to Jesus’ teachings, but is still loyal to his mentor Pilate and the seduction of the promise of power. He goes into a spiritual crisis. In yet another example about the timeless message of the play, Judas’ speech about having to “pick sides” is hard to distinguish from modern day debates about politics, religion, et cetera. Judas can’t understand why he can’t just…well, believe. The dichotomy between Peter and Judas becomes very obvious: Spiritual comfort versus distress. Energy versus emotional paralysis. Faith versus doubt. Meanwhile, Jesus’ new “celebrity” of sorts is not lost upon Pilate, who is still watching everything from his tower. Concerned about possible political and social unrest in Judea, Pilate orders Klautus to spy on Jesus.
Act 1 of Judas has one potent scene after another, with little time for a “cool down” period for the theater attendees. All the interactions between the characters– Pilate and Judas, Mary and Joseph, Mary and Jesus, Peter and Judas– are delivered with severe force. By the intermission time, the audience was actually grateful for some breathing space. But, as anyone who knows the story will predict, it only gets far, far more intense from there. Act 2 sees Jesus as a somewhat polarizing figure. Many (including his fiery mother Mary) see Jesus as the next King of the Jews, who will lift the Chosen People from centuries of repression and slavery– most recently by the Romans. Jesus himself, however, has a much larger mission, envisioning a wider Kingdom of God and the theory that spiritual freedom can be found from within. Jesus promises his followers that “All will be revealed”. Like Jesus, the play keeps its promise– and like the original story, the conclusion promises a seemingly infinite amount of interpretation.
The costume design by Debbi Hobson, set and lighting design by Juan Merchan, and projections/video by Attilio Rigotti are simple yet amazingly effective. The set really seems to come alive. Likewise, the performances are all stunning. Josh Tyson is a revelation as the titular Judas, but the other characters all get their moments to have their voices heard. Craig Smith, doing double duty as director and actor, delivers a tour de force as Pontius Pilate. While playing the ultimate politician with expertise, Smith’s Pilate occasionally almost dares to show a more sympathetic, fatherly side to his character in his relationship with Judas– most explicitly in the scene when a drunk Judas visits a pajama-clad Pilate in the middle of the night. Yet, Pilate never loses his unique form of ambition. His final scenes with Jesus are challenging to watch. As Jesus, Jeffrey Marc Alkins indeed makes a divine presence as he’s shown (literally) in a glowing light in the play’s second half– but as kind and nurturing as his Jesus is, this prophet is also very human (conflicts and all) as well as quite headstrong and firm in his mission. Elise Stone’s Mary is also conflicted and strong-willed, so much that Stone’s scenes may as well be subtitled “The Passion of the Mother”. Craig Anthony Bannister is engaging in the pivotal role of Joseph. As Peter, Ariel Estrada meets the difficult challenge of showing his newfound spiritual fervor without resorting to caricature or camp. .
Robert Patrick’s Judas was, and still is, considered controversial– for reasons this reviewer didn’t quite understand. Some have speculated that the controversy was mostly due to the play’s depiction of Mary. However, Judas is also one of the most smart, provocative, and powerful plays about the life of Christ in modern times. But this gem of theater culture goes beyond the famous story. The play says more about religion, politics, and human nature in the first 15 minutes than an entire textbook can offer.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of Judas runs through May 13 at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd St., between Ave. A and Ave. B, New York City. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on selected Wednesdays and Saturdays. For tickets and information, call Ovation Tix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.