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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
By Elyse Sommer
To explore the redeemability of this infamous betrayer, Guirgis has envisioned a courtroom in a corner of Purgatory called Hope. To represent the comatose Judas (Sam Rockwell), he's created a sexy defense attorney named Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Callie Thorne) who presents a petition signed by God to the ill-tempered Civil War era presiding judge. She challenges Judge Littlefield's unsympathetic view of Judas with "Your Honor, are you a citizen of Heaven?" Her comeback to his defensive "my papers are pending" is that his papers have been pending for a hundred and forty years and that he's farther than ever from the call of the truth about hanging himself from a tree on a Georgia battlefield.
And so the legal maneuverings between the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Judas Iscariot begins. Cunningham's opponent is a womanizing prosecutor named Yusef El-Fayoumy (Yul Vazquez) and the next several hours bring a parade of witnesses. However, don't expect a somber, period drama like the Public Theater's other recently opened play, The Controversy of Valladolid ( my review). While Guirgis' dialogue is often poetic, it is a poetry couched in contemporary hip-hop street talk, spiced with the flavor of the barrio and with the the deeper thematic concerns often presented as laughter-inducing monologues -- for example, the first and funniest testimony from Saint Monica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), " heaven's nag " with a decidedly hip and down-to-earth vocabulary. She relates how she descended from her saintly perch to "check out " Judas for herself and, after convincing herself of his remorse, "went back home and got on the horn with God."
Other colorful personalities parading in and out of Littlefield's court are Mary Magdalene (Yetta Gottesman), a not so saintly Mother Theresa (Liza Colñn-Zayas), Sigmund Freud and St. Thomas (both played by Adrian Martinez), Pontius Pilate (Stephen McKinley Henderson). At one point the cranky Judge leaves the bench long enough to play Caiaphas the Elder who's encouraged by Cunningham to take his time because "This is purgatory, Caiaphas, I got all day."
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has directed Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the A Train and Our Lady of 121st Street has done his best to steer the playwright's wildly inventive characters through heaven and hell without stumbles. But working with a script that is big in its ambition but still seems to need more work, even the talented Hoffman is unable to avoid dead spots, over-extended humor (as in the Mother Theresa scene ) and to keep the slanginess from at times being too self-conscious. The Martinson Hall's stage, like the script, is also huge, but while its heavenly height would seem to be particularly suitable, Hoffman's decision to have some of the monologues delivered from elevated platforms doesn't work too well for the actors; it also makes for occasionally obstructed vision even from excellent seats.
While The Last Days of Judas Iscariot still needs a few more rounds of editing, it has enough going for it to make it a must for anyone interested in the work of thoughtful and original playwrights. Given the variety of plays with courtroom setting, three seen in the past week, I feel well primed for my upcoming appearance as a potential New York juror -- hopefully, I won't be assigned to Judge Littlefield's corner of purgatory.
Links to review of Other Stephen Adly Guirgis plays reviewed at CurtainUp: Jesus Hopped the A Train
Our Lady of 121st Street
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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