The very first character we meet in Hunter College Theatre Department’s extraordinary production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is Henrietta, the mother of the play’s titular character– who has recently passed away from suicide. In an undefined setting and undefined time period, the grieving Henrietta is sharing her personal story of heartbreak to anyone who is listening. As she speaks to the audience, Jesus (Hampton M. Holmes) comes to silently wash her feet, which Henrietta does not even notice. In the role of Judas’ mother, the highly expressive Maria Jimenez provokes sympathy and speaks volumes with her huge eyes– and her scene kicks off the show with a high-energy intensity. Even at an epic running time of three hours, the passion established by the opening moment of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot never peters out. While the play often shifts from raunchy, over-the-top comedy, to historical docudrama, to serious explorations of faith. morals, and identity through the centuries, the audience can never look away. Just as the playwright does not squander a single moment of dialogue, director Adrienne D. Williams does not waste a minute of running time.
So, we come to the famous story of Judas, which is told in Guirgis’ 2006 play in a most, shall we say, “unorthodox” way. The audience is transported to a lively courtroom in Purgatory, where most of the drama and comedy takes place. Presiding over the court is a redneck-y Judge (excellently played by Michael Vittoria) with an unflattering combination of Type A personality and less-than-progressive mentality. The next big case to come before him will decide the fate of Judas Iscariot (Alessandro Lòpez), who already has the unenviable, enduring reputation as the one of the world’s most famous betrayers: he who committed the “sin of despair”, the one sin that cannot be forgiven. Will Judas be sentenced to Hell? His purgatorial lawyer Fabiana Pariza Cunningham (Cathrine Barbasiewicz) is determined to prevent that.
On the opposing team is Yusef Akbar Wahid El-Nasser Gamel El-Fayoumy (Travis Schweiger), a Coptic attorney who, in his own words, is determined to “prosecute this sham of a case and defend the Gates of Heaven and the Kingdom of God”– specifically, by keeping Mr. Iscariot outside the pearly gates. Speaking in a hilariously exaggerated Egyptian accent, Schweiger plays his role with the adrenaline-infused mania of a dragonfly hooked on energy drinks. His El Fayoumy has no shortage of ego or bona fide “moxie”: This grandiose ladies’ man even hits on Mother Theresa! With three Jurors overlooking in the background (Ryan Janowski, Claudia Zajic, and Jacqueline Wade, who is enchanting as an angel who bums a cigarette), the audience is introduced to the lineup of witnesses for this truly unprecedented case: 1.Judas’ mother, 2. Mother Theresa (Gabriella Carucci), 3. Simon the Zealot (Luis Feliciano), 4. Satan (Laurel Hope), 5. Sigmund Freud (Yanniv Frank), 6.
Celine Dion, 7. Caiaphas the Elder (Vittoria again), and 8. Pontius Pilate (James Saunders). Throughout the play, other characters also have their say in establishing Judas’ character, including Saint Monica (Diana Franchesca), Mary Magdalene (Carucci again), Saints Peter and Thomas (Christopher Burgess), Saint Matthew (Frank again) and… Jesus Himself.
In a rare phenomenon in the world of theater, all of the players in this large, very talented ensemble cast (Sixteen actors are credited, and many play multiple roles.) have their moments to shine and to display some serious acting ability. That said, there are some vivid standouts in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. At the beginning of the play, we may be led to believe that Barbasiewicz’ by-the-law books Cunningham will be in danger of being overshadowed or eaten alive by Vittoria’s bigoted Judge and Schweiger’s slick El Fayoumy. But the character not only holds her own, but states her case in a BIG way towards the play’s climax. Diana Franchesca’s Saint Monica is a revelation in a flashy part as eternity’s baddest saint: “My name is Monica– better known as Saint Monica– yeah, dass right, SAINT– as in ‘better not don’t get up in my grill, ‘cuz I’ll mess your sh*t up, ‘cuz I’m a Saint and I got mad saintly connects. OK!'” Monica alludes that she’s from California (“Santa Monica”. Get it?), but her character actually screams New York City with her “outer borough” realness and “take no you-know what” attitude, complete with an infinite arsenal of verbal torpedoes. As Pontius Pilate, James Saunders supremely captures that passion I mentioned in the first paragraph. Hampton M. Holmes makes a very touching Jesus. But the true show-stealer in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is Laurel Hope as the seductive yet sadistic Satan. Hope is simply fantastic in a particularly showy role. Dressed in high fashion (Yes, kids: The Devil Wears Gucci.), Temptation Personified never looked so alluring– or, ultimately, so dangerous. I won’t reveal the final outcome for Mr. Judas Iscariot. But I will add that in one of the show’s final moments, the hillbilly-esque character Butch (excellently played with pathos and humor by Ryan Janowski) teaches us a provocative lesson about how the aftermath of our indiscretions on Earth may teach us a better “lesson” than the fear of waiting in Purgatory ever could.
Performed with a diverse, multigenerational cast, the play is briskly and smoothly directed by Ms. Williams. Lighting and sound effects are superb. The set design is simple, but it looks absolutely elegant in this production. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a fine example of a show that defies time, generation, and even genre– and manages to be highly entertaining throughout.
Hunter College Theatre Department’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues for two more performances, on Friday, November 22 at 7:30Pm and Saturday, November 23rd at 2PM, at The Frederick Loewe Theatre,119 East 68th Street between Park and Lexington Aves, New York City. Visit here for tickets and more information.
Photos by Esther Ko.