Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Dates and Venue 7 - 17 October 2009; Wed – Sat 8pm, Saturday matinees 2pm | Pacific Theatre

Director Stephen Drover Production Manager Frank Nickel Stage Manager Jessica Howell

Reviewer Erin Jane

Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis is Pacific Theatre’s first play of the 2009/2010 season, and tells the story of the tribunal of Judas Iscariot (historically known as the betrayer of Jesus Christ) in Purgatory, two thousand or so years after his death. Several characters, including expert witnesses Mother Theresa and Sigmund Freud, are called to the stand to testify.

So, there I am at opening night for Pacific Theatre’s first show of the season, and on stage, the actors all had scripts in hand. Not because they didn’t have their lines learned, but because this show was a “Stage Reading” – meaning the actors had two days to rehearse, and planned to use scripts on stage.

My expectation that it would be more challenging to suspend one’s disbelief with the actors constantly reading from their notes was proven false early on in the play. The actors (and there were many – 14 cast members took the stage in The Last Days) ably played their roles and I soon stopped noticing that they were all holding scripts.

All 14 actors did a great job with this lengthy, dialogue-rich production. Stand-out performances included Sarah Afful’s boisterous but compassionate performance as Saint Monica, Michael Kopsa’s cruel yet debonair take on Satan, and Katharine Venour and Marcus Youssef who handled the roles of defence and prosecution attorneys, respectively.

Venour played the plucky but emotional attorney fighting to have Judas spared from his fate, and Youssef was the over-the-top sycophant, who with his exaggerated compliments attempted to charm judge and witnesses to his cause. Kopsa as Satan really showed a unique performance of the prince of darkness, who at first seemed a silly character role but rose to a more powerful position in the scene where he puts the two attorneys in their place. Kopsa takes Satan from charming, sparkling and entertaining to a dark, angry and cruel place, and he does it well. Arguably the best aspect of Guirgis’s play is the characters. Most of them have such interesting dimensions and the cast pulls off these challenging roles quite well.

I couldn’t omit a word about Judas or Jesus here, so I’ll say that although Judas (played by Bob Fraser) had a largely catatonic and therefore a mostly non-speaking role, and Jesus (played by Camyar Chai) barely made an appearance at all, I immediately felt in their scene together that they were undoubtedly the stars and foremost characters of the play. In their intensely emotional scene together, you see that Judas and Jesus are simply two sides of the same coin. When Judas accuses Jesus of forsaking him – and not the other way around – you can really see Jesus’s heart breaking, and this is a credit to Camyar Chai’s sweetness in his portrayal of Jesus.

If The Last Days’ best feature is its interesting characters, where it fails is its continuity and length. While the premise is obviously very unique, somewhere in the middle of Ron Reed’s stirring monologue as jury foreman Butch to the catatonic and non-responsive Judas, I wondered what the time was. This is not meant to be a criticism of Reed’s performance, but more of a comment on how I thought several scenes could have been shortened or even omitted, in the interest of good pacing. The play in its entirety ran nearly three hours, and the last few scenes were punctuated by the sound of uncomfortable shifting in squeaky chairs.

Nevertheless, the performance with the quick shifts in character that this play offers to a patient audience is immensely enjoyable. Just make sure you have no uneasiness about expletives, racial slurs and other types of profanity.

© 2009 Erin Jane