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Theater review: 'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot' a mixed bag of flash and flatness

Published May 5, 2014 7:38 am

Stage review • Wasatch Theatre Company can't overcome the play's disjointed talkiness.
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The name of Judas Iscariot has become synonymous with betrayal, but what do we know — or care — about the real Judas? What made him decide to hand Jesus over to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver? Could he have chosen to do something else? And after his fatal error, could he have found a way to be forgiven?

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis sets out to address these questions in his street-talking, earthy "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," currently being staged by Wasatch Theatre Company in an earnest, but uneven, production.

The premise seems clever and promising enough. Judas (Nick Diaz) is put on trial in Hope, a corner of downtown purgatory, where sexy, stylish defense lawyer Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Ana Lemke) argues his innocence in a battle of wits with oily, phrase-making prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy (Eric Leckman) before vitriolic, venomous Judge Littlefield (W. Lee Daily).

Cunningham tries to use Hegel's synthesis of opposites — God's perfect love vs. God's divine justice = forgiveness — to exonerate Judas. Witnesses ranging from Mother Teresa (Natalie Keezer) to Sigmund Freud (Daniel Ryan Romero), Judas' fellow apostle Simon the Zealot (Sam McGinnis), Caiaphas (Mark Macey), Pontius Pilate (Chris Harvey) and even Satan (a flamboyant William Cooper Howell) appear and make some interesting points.

Mother Teresa identifies Judas' principal sin as despair and quotes from Thomas Merton to show that it stems from pride and arrogance. Freud postulates that anyone who commits suicide is psychotic and therefore not responsible for his actions. Simon suggests that the conundrum of whether man is made in God's image or God is made in man's image is what entrapped Judas.

Guirgis counterpoints the trial scenes against flashbacks in which other apostles and Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Steiner) give their impressions of Judas. Besides diluting the intensity and focus of the trial, the flashbacks give us little sense of the real Judas, and the only scene where we see him interacting with anyone — in this case, Satan — doesn't go anywhere or shed any light on his character or motivation.

The problem deepens in Act II, when Guirgis becomes fascinated with the character of Satan and all focus totally disappears. The play becomes flat and very talky; a rambling monologue by Butch Honeywell (Jared Greathouse), the jury foreman, destroys whatever coherence remains. The play is neatly bookended by touching scenes featuring Judas' mother, Henrietta (Tiffany Greathouse), and Jesus (Brandon Pearson) — the two people who really loved Judas.

The cast and director Lucas Bybee struggle — sometimes successfully — to inject shape and energy into the play. Daily is outrageously provocative as Judge Littlefield, and Howell's Satan is wily, duplicitous and palpably evil. Macey's Caiaphas is intelligent, persuasive and moving as he describes the vilification and suffering the Jews have experienced as a result of Jesus' death. Paris Hawkins is funny and irreverent as Saint Monica, who has realized that nagging God is the best way to get his attention. Tiffany Greathouse creates a sweet and tender Henrietta Iscariot.

Although uneven, Bybee's direction moves characters around fluidly to maintain momentum. Danny Dunn's moody lighting and Michael Nielsen's garish costumes complement the production.

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is basically an interesting idea that never delivers. Although it has some intriguing and dramatic moments, it fails to unearth any new ways of looking at either Judas or the unending tension between justice and mercy that underlies his story. —

'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'

Although propelled by some dynamic performances, Wasatch Theatre Company's production fails to overcome the inherent limitations of the material.

When • Reviewed Thursday, May 1; continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees through May 17

Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City

Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission)

Tickets • $15; call 355-ARTS or visit http://www.arttix.org for tickets and http://www.wasatchtheatre.org for more information

Note • The show contains adult language.