Walking into a full theater for Cap & Bells production Stephen Adly Gurgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I had no idea what to expect from a religious comedy. I even brought along a bible-savvy friend to poke me every time he picked up an allusion. I should not have worried, though: Under the direction of Noah Schechter ’12, the hilarious characters embodied well-known religious figures, making the plot easy to follow. The show proved enjoyable both for its humor – most of the audience was laughing scene after scene – as well as for its more serious implications.
A cast consisting mainly of underclassmen presented a down-to-earth portrayal of modern-day Purgatory, giving religious figures the same human qualities visible in our in friends and family. These included hesitancy to forgive and undue excitement over small items such as a spinning top, as well as more archetypal characteristics found in media representations of politicians and celebrities. “You’d better not get up in my grill, ’cause I’m a saint!” Saint Monica (Lauren Young ’10) said, causing several viewers to double over with laughter. “My ass gets results … signed, sealed and delivered, mother f**ker, peace,” she continued, flaunting her prowess powers at bargaining with God. Other characters, including Judas (Mike Leon ’11), the Judge (Chris Gay ’13), Judas’ lawyer Cunningham (Madlyn Mgrublian ’13) and Simon the Zealot (Belle Baxley ’13), also conveyed no-nonsense presences with acerbic sarcasm and back-off body language.
Though each character successfully presented this attitude, the play did seem to lack some diversity of personality types. By the end of the performance, I felt as though the strategies for humor were slightly repetitive.
Nonetheless, these characters kept the audience in fits of laughter, especially during the first half of the play. One of my favorite characters was Satan (Joe Lorenz ’10), also known as Lucifer, or “Lu.” The Gucci button-down shirt, morning Pilates routine, sleazy smile and use of phrases such as, “I appreciate your appreciation,” embodied a stereotypical corporate CEO with a personality disorder. Even the way he moved felt creepy, as he slinked across the stage to flash an obsequious smile to the Judge and then suddenly (after subtle cues of tugging neurotically on a crisp tie) stopped short to erupt with anger. The fast switch between a false front of calmness and extroversion to his real personality of no-compromise and anger cast a novel light on how Satan projects his evil nature. The alternation between seeming acquiescence to the desires of people around him and sudden severe rejection of those people proved a much more human-like evil than just constant rage.
By giving human characteristics to religious figures, the play questions blind acceptance of religion and biblical truth as well as black-and-white characterizations of behavior. It demonstrates that another side exists to apparently sealed stories. Mother Theresa accepts financial support from brutal dictators and Jesus does not help everyone he could have – even the most selfless people make mistakes. And even the people who had carried out supposedly terrible deeds, like Judas, still retain good qualities. Rare serious moments in the play highlight this theme: “Tell us, Caiaphas, if there was a difference between what you did and what Judas did,” Cunningham said. The Elder (Chloe Brown ’10) admitted, “In terms of results, there was not.”
The present-day setting extends the questioning of biblical truth to a discussion of whether any objective truth exists. Lines such as Saint Matthew’s (Lauren Young ’10) declaration that, “This is not a made up story. This is fact. This is history,” give rise to essential postmodern questions: Whose version of fact and history is this? How can these interpretations claim any more truth than unlimited other possible interpretations? Other characters address this theme: “History is lie,” Cunningham said, accusing Pontius Pilate of blind cruelty. “My truth is defined by my honor, defined by my integrity,” Pilate replied.
These themes culminate in a scene close to the end of the play, when Cunningham confronts Satan with the biblical line, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.” “So are you good or bad?” Cunningham shoots, referring to the fact that God created Satan. He avoids the question: “I do not believe in good or bad. I believe in truth.” Tension escalates when Cunningham redirects the abstract questions to the case of Judas, spurring other powerful discussions: If God loves all humans but Judas is in hell, then is God’s love conditional? Is human despair powerful enough to render God powerless? Is God powerless or spiteful?
This scene and these questions expose the play’s core. Unfortunately, the intended climax, in which Jesus and Judas meet face-to-face, seemed a bit over-the-top dramatic and therefore less powerful than the more subtle scenes. Jesus begs Judas to take his hands in a long scene that, after almost two-and-a-half hours, made the crowd restless. Though this interaction was important to resolve the tense yet ambiguous relationship between the two religious figures and to answer questions raised about salvation, the sudden change in tone from light-hearted to serious drew too much attention and weakened the scene’s dramatic impact.
Though the serious, almost stilted nature of the last few scenes diminished the play’s cohesiveness, I walked out having enjoyed both the hilarious characters and the stimulating questions that continued to swim in my mind. If even the story of Judas Iscariot has an unexplored side, then all stories with villainous and saintly characters, no matter how extreme their actions, must also have an alternative interpretation. So to what extent do these interpretations preclude the existence of objective historical narrative? How does this theme of gray-area interpretations help answer Cunningham’s question, “Is God powerless or spiteful?” Having brought that query back into the realm of concrete action taken in everyday life, Judas Iscariot asks its audience to question how powerlessness and spite interact to form specific human behaviors.