April 11, 2014

‘Judas Iscariot’ puts a new spin on an old betrayal at CAST

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ long but articulate meditation on history’s most famous traitor covers many viewpoints.

Tradition says Judas Iscariot, horrified at his betrayal of Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, returned the money and hanged himself.

The Bible’s Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 1, Verse 18) more graphically informs us he “purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” Dwellers at Jerusalem named that spot Aceldama, “the field of blood.”

Stephen Adly Guirgis has other ideas. He offers a revisionist take in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” spilling ideas forth with humorous and occasionally touching abandon in the production by Carolina Actors Studio Theatre.

We see Judas as a kindly but reckless boy, a young man disappointed the Messiah doesn’t intend to lead a physical revolution against Rome, a possibly repentant soul mocked by Satan and humiliated by Pilate.

Simon the Zealot (Robert Hackett) reminds us Judas wasn’t the only man hungering for a violent revolt. He may have betrayed Jesus to force the Messiah’s hand and jump-start an uprising. Mostly, we see Judas (Brandon Samples) in a catatonic stupor, as a smarmy prosecutor (Michael Smallwood) and a severe defense attorney (Caroline Renfro) debate his fate in a courtroom in purgatory.

CAST did Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” four years ago. On these two showings, he’s the Whitney Houston of playwrights: a virtuoso with a unique voice and huge range who pops off high notes and showy, occasionally irrelevant runs of notes simply because he can. I enjoyed Corlis Hayes’ sassy, foul-mouthed rants as Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine; only after the fact did I realize the play wouldn’t change much if Monica weren’t in it.

Sigmund Freud and Satan (both played by Christian Casper) show up in the witness chair. The former claims a man who commits suicide must be mad, and therefore not responsible for his actions; the latter claims he had no hand in tempting the unhappy sinner, who chose his own path.

The two witnesses who have the most to say, Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Jonathan Ray) and Roman-appointed governor Pilate (Dominic Weaver), all but dismiss Judas as an irrelevancy; both claim they were keeping the peace by suppressing yet another troublemaking Jew who was accumulating a following. We infer that, if Judas hadn’t turned Jesus in, somebody else probably would have soon enough.

It’s a pleasure to see a large play again, after so many chamber-sized dramas, especially with so enjoyable and diverse a group of actors. Heather Byrd, who makes her CAST directing debut, keeps this strange circus moving smoothly. She has placed the witness stand at the center of the room, with the audience on four sides; as witnesses revolve to face or avoid the ever-mobile attorneys, we get the sense that the case itself is going in circles.

And, of course, it is. After two millennia of disputes and analysis, you wouldn’t expect Guirgis to come up with a theological insight no one else has had. He considers all points of view and ends where he has to: He asserts that Jesus (Rafael Diaz) never stops loving us, and redemption extends to all who ask for it, Judas included. Judas doesn’t ask, because he feels unworthy. But as Satan says, Judas can leave purgatory any time he likes.

Guirgis introduces his masterstroke in the last and longest monologue, delivered with touching simplicity by Ron McClelland as a newly dead husband who cheated on his wife. The deed permanently blotted his marriage, though she never found out.

Guirgis’ point is that we all disappoint God, falling short of his hopes for us somehow. The betrayals and failures vary only by degrees, and God forgives them all.

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