The Trial of the Century

Last night, we went to Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall to see their first summer “81 series” production: “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”. Although the acting and direction were great, the show didn’t grab me. This may have been due to my headache; it may have been due to the subject matter (I’m Jewish); or it may have been due to the length (just over 3 hours). I know that my wife and daughter enjoyed the show (in fact, Erin raved about it on her Facebook), so I’m guessing my reaction is just mine. It is important to remember that—just as with movies—sometimes the subject doesn’t reach out to everyone. This is why shows such as this are in the “81 series”: the shows are more on the edge and perhaps of less broad appeal. That doesn’t make them bad shows. Poor writing, poor acting, and poor production makes a show bad… and this show had good writing, good acting, and good production.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is a 2005 play by American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. It presents the trial of Judas Iscariot in a stylized TV-Judge manner, taking place in a corner of Purgatory called Hope. The court is presided over by Judge Littlefield, a Civil-War era judge who is impatient and mecurical, and his bailiff, Julius of Outer Mongolia. Representing Judas, who is comatose, is a sexy defense attorney named Fabiana Aziza Cunningham. Cunningham’s opponent is a womanizing prosecutor named Yusef El-Fayoumy, an Egyptian Christian. Throughout the proceedings we see a wide variety of historical characters ranging from Satan and Jesus, to Simon the Zealot, Sigmund Freud, the jive-talking Saint Monica, Calaphas the Elder (head of the Sanhedrin), Pontius Pilate, Mother Theresa, and others. Throughout the story, questions are raised of whether Judas was responsible for his actions and crazy; whether Jesus’s love for the least means that he would forgive Judas; whether Judas’ hatred for his own actions would permit him to accept forgiveness; and the role of the Jews of the time in the whole mess.

Although the story was interesting, I found it long. The story and the presentation could likely be tightened; however, since this is a new work, I’m not sure the REP had that luxury. There were also points in the story, in particular the testimony of Calaphas the Elder and Pontius Pilate, that seemed to be edging on the point of placing the blame on the Jews. That is a particular claim that’s been responsible for a lot of antisemitism over the ages, and so I am very sensitive to it. The question is a hard one to answer… and it would have been interesting to see an exploration of who Jesus would blame. I’ve always viewed the subject as this: My understanding is that Jesus’ death is a critical part of the belief system—if he hadn’t died for the sins of the people, the story of the resurrection wouldn’t have happened, and Christian theology wouldn’t exist. Thus, the actions of the “villains” of the story—Judas, the Sanhedrin of the time, Pilate—are the critical event that elevated Jesus from a local evangelical to the position he has today. It is an important view to understand: the importance of the bad things that happen in shaping the good in our lives, but without the bad, we wouldn’t have the good. The Bible does say it best: we are given the choice between good and bad, life and death, and we are to choose good. Satan exists to give us the ability to choose to do good. Judas exists to give us the opportunity to forgive.

I should note that the production opened with an audience warm-up by Jonathan “Doc” Farrow (the Bailiff), who did a great job of interacting with the audience and setting the mood of the evening. I’m guessing this wasn’t in the script, and I found that it worked very well.

The performances of the cast (under the direction of Jamie Callahan) were excellent, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from a REP production. Leading the charge were Daniel Lenchæ at Judge Littlefield and Jonathan “Doc” Farrow as Bailiff Julius of Outer Mongolia. Both had fun with their roles; Lench in particular appeared to take sadistic joy in interacting with the characters. As Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, MarLee Candell was the typical sexy defense attorney with a fire in her spirit. Opposing her was Carlo Pietrosanti as Yusef El-Faoumy, a sleazy lecherous slime of a prosecutor. Pietrosanti captured that essence well; so much so you wanted to check the stage for oil afterwards. Also playing a critical role in the proceedings was Toya Nashæ as Saint Monica, a jive-talking product of the hood, who brought substantial energy to the proceedings (we’ve met her son, Augustine of Hippo, before).

In terms of the individuals who testified, there were a number of standout performances, often by REP regulars. I particularly recall Brad Sergi as Satan, who took full delight in his character—I think he was channeling something inside of him; Bill Quinn as Saint Matthew/Sigmund Freud, who played the Viennese doctor as a man quite full of himself; and Michael Levine as Calaphas the Elder, who brought his own tallit and seemingly brought an Eastern-European Yiddish speaking aspect to the story. Rounding out the cast were Scott Blair (Judas Iscariot); Vitthal Mendieta (Jesus/Simon the Zealot); Gregor Manns (Pontius Pilate); Christina Ridout (Henrietta Iscariot/Mary Magdalene); Christopher Murphy (Matthias of Galilee/Sant Thomas/Saint Peter); Donna Marie Sergi (Gloria/Mother Theresa); Johnny Schwinn (Roman Centurian); Amber Van Schwinn (Sister Glenna); and Mikee Schwinn.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The technical production was by the usual REP crew: “Nanook” doing sound, Tim Christianson doing lighting, and Jeff Hyde on the sets. All were excellent as usual. Although uncredited in the body of the program, I’m expecting Mikee was behind the excellent videos developed for the show. Erin Anderson was Stage Manager.

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” continues at the REP through July 24. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office, and are often available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Tonight brings the July “Meeting of Minds (Catherine the Great, Daniel Cromwell, and Daniel O’Connell, starring Gary Cole, Penny Peyser, Ian Buchanan and Jim Handy). Next weekend brings Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24, and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum on July 25. August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1. The next weekend brings [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre on August 6. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. October will bring “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and possibly “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


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