In the August 3, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Joan Acocella wrote one of the magazine's classic Critic at Large think pieces called "Betrayal." In it, she pondered the various, sometimes conflicting, stories of Judas Iscariot as told in the Gospels; reported on the recent translation of a long-lost Gnostic tract about Judas; and compared several contemporary works about the man who supposedly sold out Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. I say 'supposedly' because there's apparently a lot of reconsidering going on about the much-vilified Mr. Iscariot, the crux of which is that perhaps the poor fellow was merely doing his good friend's bidding, to hasten Jesus's martyrdom and subsequent resurrection. Besides, Jesus was a pretty well-known character in Judea: Did the authorities really need a patsy like Judas to lead them to the self-proclaimed Messiah? It just doesn't make sense.
One citation that was missing from Acocella's otherwise fine essay was The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a 2005 play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, playing now through October 18, 2009 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. This fierce and frequently hilarious production, directed by Kit Wilder, follows the imagined trial, in purgatory, of Judas.
Catatonic with the despair that caused him to take his own life, even before his former friend had been nailed to the cross, Judas (Isaac Benelli) is represented by Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Alika Ululani Spencer), a tough, leggy defense attorney. Cunningham can't get Judge Littlefield (Bill Davidovich), a Southern Comfort-swigging former Confederate soldier who, like Judas, hung himself rather than face disgrace, to give her client his day in court. Naturally she prays for 40 days and nights to St. Monica (Lonnique Genelle). Knowing a good nag when she sees one, the fabulously foul-mouthed Saint gets a writ from God himself, forcing the trial to proceed.
For the prosecution, representing "God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth" is Yusef El-Fayoumy (John Romano) -- if he wins this case, maybe the powers that be will let him out of hell. And so the trial begins, with a lollipop-sucking bailiff (Jake Van Tuyl) calling a parade of witnesses, from Judas's grief-stricken mother, Henrietta (Vera Sloan), to a hard-of-hearing, stooped Mother Teresa (Patricia Tyler), to a pompous and smug Sigmund Freud (John Baldwin).
There are too many fine performances to mention in detail here, but standouts definitely include Romano, who speaks with a delightfully smarmy, fake Persian accent and is seemingly propelled by his pelvis as he waltzes about the stage. Davidovich is also terrific, not just as the imperious and impatient judge but also as St. Matthew, and especially as the self-righteous Caiaphas the Elder (Guirgis wraps both hands around the eternal third-rail question of whether or not Jews were complicit in Christ's death). Jake Vincent's Pontius Pilate is an unrepentant GoodFella, while Jeff Clarke's Satan is wicked good.
In the end, I doubt Guirgis is going to change many minds -- those who believe that Judas was the traitorous Jew who sold their savior down the river will not be moved by this profane and profanity laden exercise in What If. Which is really a shame, because despite the linguistic pyrotechnics and the numerous moments of seriously comic relief, at its core, Judas is a thoughtful rumination on the tug between faith and free will, as well as that even greater miracle, forgiveness.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs through October 18, 2009 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For tickets and information, visit cltc.org.