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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Adam Flores
Mustard Seed Theatre
October 14, 2018

Eric Dean White, Chris Ware, Courtney Bailey Parker, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Ann K. Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is opening their 2018-2019 season with a play that’s somewhat difficult to categorize. The basic premise is simple enough to describe, but how it plays out is much more complicated than that. It’s certainly memorable, though, with strong performances and excellent production values, and enough though-provoking ideas to prompt many a conversation, contemplation, or academic essay.

So, the set-up is fairly simple, and the setting metaphysical. It’s described as a place called “Hope”, located in Downtown Purgatory, between heaven and hell. There’s a courtroom here, presided by a gruff Judge (Chandler Spradling) who is trying to get through the various cases as quickly as possible. The latest defense attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Courtney Bailey Parker) is persistent, however, insisting on a hearing for her client, the infamous Judas Iscariot (Chris Ware), who sits sullenly waiting for his fate to be pronounced. The prosecuting attorney, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Carl Overly, Jr.) is zealous if somewhat unorganized, and Cunningham remains determined throughout the ensuing trial in which Judas’s betrayal of Jesus Christ (Jesse Muñoz) is recounted in detail, including testimonies from Judas’s mother, Henriette (Carmen Garcia), along with various biblical figures like St. Peter (FeliceSkye), St. Matthew, Mary Magdalene and Caiphas (all three played by Ariella Rovinsky), as well as more recent historical figures like Mother Teresa (Rachel Tibbetts) and Sigmund Freud (also FeliceSkye), and Satan himself (Eric Dean White).

The format is difficult to follow at times, as it jumps around in time and space and features a mixture of perspectives. The biblical story is embellished to fill out Judas’s life story as well as provide context for the historical and fictional characters represented here. It’s not always clear where the story is going either, especially since it takes a rather sharp turn near the end on the way to a conclusion that reminds me in a way of C. S. Lewis, although a broad range of philosophies and approaches is mentioned here as well. The various situations are treated with a sometimes jarring mixture of comedy and drama, and some specific characters–especially Satan–veering wildly in tone and approach. It’s a thoughtful show, turning over and examining ideas of compassion, mercy, justice, hypocrisy, the concepts of heaven and hell, and more.

The performances are a key element of this production, with particularly dynamic turns from Parker as the earnestly determined Cunningham and Overly as the frenetic but also determined El-Fayoumy, as well as White as a Satan who is at turns smarmy, hucksterish, and deadly serious. Ware is a strong presence as the dejected, mostly silent Judas, and Muñoz is excellent in a small but memorable role as Jesus. It’s a large cast, with most of the other players playing more than one role, to excellent effect, with standouts including Tibbetts as a somewhat scatterbrained Mother Teresa, Rae Davis as the tough-talking St. Monica, Garcia as both Judas’s mother and a stubborn Pontius Pilate, and Rovinsky in a variety of roles. Graham Emmons also has a memorable moment near the end as a juror named Butch Honeywell. It’s a strong ensemble all around, with lots of energy, conveying the comic and dramatic moments with clarity.

Visually, this show is simply striking, with a scenic design by Dunsi Dai that conveys the otherworldly setting well–an orangey-red courtroom setup that serves as a backdrop for the trial and for various other locations as needed. The lighting by Michael Sullivan is also strong, along with Zoe Sullivan’s sound, contributing to the metaphysical atmosphere of the play. The costumes by Andrea Robb also suit the characters well, putting a more modern twist to the stylings of characters from various time periods and backgrounds.

This isn’t an easy play. It requires a lot of thought, and sometimes seems to present contradictory concepts of the world and various perspectives. It’s a vividly characterized story that’s part philosophical treatise, part morality play, part deconstruction, with excellent performances and first-rate production values. It’s a provocative start to a new season for Mustard Seed.

Jesse Muñoz, Chris Ware
Photo by Ann K. Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Fontbonne University until October 28, 2018

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Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life
by Deanna Jent
Directed by Adam Flores
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 24, 2016

Cast of Bosnian/American: The Dance of Life Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Cast of Bosnian/American: The Dance of Life
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre’s latest project tells an important story in the history of St. Louis, and the world. The Bosnian-American  community in St. Louis has become a vital part of the city over the past two decades, revitalizing a neighborhood contributing to the overall quality of life in St. Louis. Working with Fontbonne University’s Bosnia Memory Project, playwright Deanna Jent has taken the stories of first-generation Bosnian-Americans and shaped them into Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life, a play that uses memory and metaphor to illustrate their experience in St. Louis.

This isn’t a long play. Running at approximately 45 minutes, it’s a succinctly structured, vividly told story that reflects the experiences of various Bosnian immigrants to St. Louis, including a group of young adults who meet at a coffee shop and share their memories, of fleeing war and genocide in their homeland, of moving to St. Louis, and of growing up and adjusting to life in a new city and country. This story is intertwined with the framing device of a tale told to a young girl (Carly Uding) by her grandmother (Agnes Wilcox), of “Aska and the Wolf” in which a young lamb (Melissa Gerth) is separated from her flock and must figure out how to outwit a dangerous wolf (Andrew Kuhlmann) through means of dance. The 10 cast members (also including Elvedin Arnautovic, Arnelia Bogdanic, Katie Donnelly, Amir Salesevic, Mary Schnitzler, and Bob Thibaut) all play several roles in the story, including the sheep in the “Aska” story, as well as soldiers, parents, teachers, school children and more.

This show initially played two performances at Grbic Restaurant before settling into Mustard Seed’s usual space at Fontbonne University. The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, authentically recreates the restaurant setting. The costumes by Jane Sullivan are well-suited to the various characters, including the simple and inventive use of hats and a mask to represent the sheep and the wolf. There’s also good use of lighting by Michael Sullivan and excellent sound by Zoe Sullivan. The music is provided by Salesevic on the accordion, setting the tone of the production well.

The cast is uniformly excellent. From Gerth’s brave Aska, to Kuhlman’s menacing Wolf, to Wilcox’s kind, wise Nena, to Uding’s inquisitive Ariyana, to Arnautovic and Salesevic in various paternal roles, to the entire group, the ensemble is cohesive and energetic. The stories are told with a mixture of drama and humor, and the staging is well-paced.

Simply stated, Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life is a well-told story of the shaping of a community, and that community’s impact on the city of St. Louis. Produced with the participation of members of St. Louis’s Bosnian-American community, this play serves to inform and instruct as well as celebrating the real life experiences of individuals and families.

Melissa Gerth, Elvedin Arnautovic Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Melissa Gerth, Elvedin Arnautovic
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Bosnian/American: The Dance For Life is being presented by Mustard Seed Theatre at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre until May 1, 2016. 

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