In the bottom circle of Dante’s Inferno, Satan is a gigantic, three-headed monster waist-deep in a lake of ice. His three mouths chew the world’s worst traitors: Brutus and Cassius, who killed Caesar, to the right and left; in the center, Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, “has the greatest pain…With head inside, he plies his legs without.”
Throughout the centuries few questioned Judas’s place in Judecca, the infernal zone that took his name. He betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver: ergo, torment him forever in the worst possible way. But there have always been dissenters. The Coptic Gospel of Judas (Third or Fourth Century CE) says he merely followed Jesus’ orders: someone had to lead the Roman soldiers to the garden; otherwise no crucifixion and no salvation (and if Jesus turned Himself in, wouldn’t that suggest a Rome-assisted suicide?). In 1874, art critic John Ruskin begged to differ as well. Judas, he wrote, “was only a common money-lover, and like all money-lovers did not understand Jesus.” And in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas isn’t just redeemed, he becomes the front-singer for heaven’s Vegas-glitzed rock all-stars.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Last Days of Judas Iscariot (2005) puts the red-haired Galilean on trial. In the long, unwieldy script, litigation attempts to determine the ineffable: How can someone catatonic with guilt forgive himself?
Guirgis sets his courtroom drama in Hope, a bad-smelling section of “downtown” Purgatory (which has become “recently Americanized”). Judge Littlefield, who hung himself during the Civil War, refuses to try the case until Cunningham, the prosecuting attorney, produces a writ from the Lord. Big-name witnesses testify, and an imaginative setup, after one or two cross-examinations, becomes predictable.
The process is a deliberate leveling. The subtext: How much worse could Judas be than the rest of us? Sigmund Freud takes it on the nose, so to speak, for his cocaine addiction. Mother Teresa accepted money from fascist swine, just like Judas. Even though she gave it to the poor, that she held such filthy lucre in her hands corrupts her.
The revisionism cuts both ways: Caiaphas the Priest and Pontius Pilate turn out to be far less evil than advertised. Stuck amid massive social upheaval, they did the politic thing: they passed the buck (Pilate “only” crucified 700 Jews, far from the Judean record, so, the play says, he’s cool). The playwright pounds his point — anyone without sin can cast the first stone — for almost three hours.
Guirgis tackles the big questions: free will versus destiny, the Problem of Evil, the rectitude of eternal damnation. But even lacing them with contemporary slang and four-letter epithets can’t convert what’s essentially a lecture into a courtroom drama.
The slang’s fun, for a while. “We all knew Jesus had mad skills,” says one. Cunningham, the defense lawyer, has the best line. “This is purgatory,” she tells a mum Caiaphas, “I got all day.”
The play’s flaws might be less obvious if Triad Productions’ staging were more effective. The show sports a sharp look: white gauze columns, thanks to Jason Bieber’s lighting, become fiery pillars of hell. But most of the actors, however, are obviously “acting” a role. Only rarely — in performances by Merrick McCartha as Pilate, Brendan Cavalier as Thomas, and Charles Peters as Caiaphas — does something genuine come from within. The rest are external and often jumble phony accents and commit the no-no’s of Speech 1A. Talking too fast, mumbling, or addressing the floor make a long evening even longer.
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My brother and his wife could have written Lisa Loomer’s Expecting Isabel. They adopted a child and hopped through every hoop in the process. They might not have written as many scenes — Loomer covers every inch of the territory — but like the play’s Miranda and Nick, they confessed to being “rats in a bureaucratic maze” that demanded Job-like patience.
Expecting Isabel presents its serious subject through sketch comedy. No problem for Moxie Theatre, led by Jo Anne Glover’s Miranda (she writes condolence greeting cards) and Stephen Elton’s Nick. They begin like Jack Sprat and his wife — she’s dour, unsentimental; he’s worry-free. Around midway, the traits intersect.
The versatile supporting cast includes Robin Christ as an ethereal receptionist and as Miranda’s hilarious, martini-swilling mother (“I brought groceries,” Miranda says at one point, handing her a bottle of green olives); Rhona Gold’s Russian cabdriver’s a hoot; and Amanda Cooley Davis plays prim or primitive characters equally well. Mark Petrich, Justin Lang, and Sandra Ruiz also contribute.
My brother and his wife’s quest? Their son, Peter Incheon Smith — named for his Korean birthplace — graduated from college last June.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Triad Productions, Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Stephen Schmitz; Scott Andrew Amiotte, Brian Burke, Brendan Cavalier, James Cota, Lynae DePriest, Samantha Ginn, Carolyn Henderson, Patrick Kelly, Merrick McCartha, Kevin Morrison, Charles Peters, Anna Rebek, Sacha Smith, Joseph Tyrer, Kris Zarif; scenic design, Kristen Flores; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Shaun Rosten
Playing through January 31; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 619-237-4510.
Expecting Isabel, by Lisa Loomer
Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn; cast: Jo Anne Glover, Stephen Elton, Robin Christ, Rhona Gold, Mark Petrich, Justin Lang, Sandra Ruiz, Amanda Cooley Davis; scenic design, Mia Bane Jacobs; costumes, Corey Johnston; lighting, Ashley Jenks; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through February 7; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-598-7620.