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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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