Large Casts: The Redemption of Small Theater
Listen to/Watch entire show:
Here's a quick list of some of Stephen Adly Guirgis' plays:
"Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train"
"Our Lady of 121st Street"
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot"
Are you detecting a theme - or possibly even a Catholic school upbringing?
You'd be right and it's good info to have going to see the production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" at the Hudson Theater.
Originally produced by the LABryinth theater at the Public Theater in New York in 2005, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is built around a simple question: if God is all forgiving, why is Judas condemned to Hell?
The dramatic envelope for this question is a court room drama that retries Judas in a dicey section of Purgatory called Hope. The judge is a Civil War deserter, the prosecutor an over-eager Egyptian sent up from hell, the defense attorney is an agnostic blonde bombshell in heels. Witnesses? Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, the Lord of the Underworld - to name a few.
Interspersed between the courtroom scenes are testimonial/remembrance monologues given by Judas' fellow apostles and church notables - we hear from Judas' mother, Peter, Saint Monica. Mr. Guirgis' style is to infuse these holy personages with an everyday poetic street slang. He fluidly mixes the sacred and the profane - a more sophisticated version of a sexy nun halloween costume. It's jarring and more than a little thrilling to hear Saint Monica, played immaculately by Faith Imafidon, get all street on us in latex hot pants and a Tupac cut-off.
But to stay engaged - you have to care about what happened to Judas. Not what happens to him in the play - where he spends the bulk of his time catatonic - consumed by grief we're told. No you have to really care about what happens to Judas in the teachings of the church.
And it's clear that Judas really bothers Mr. Guirgis. He tackles his redemption like a graduate student on a mission. Act two begins to feel like a thesis paper that continues simply because there are more points to be made, more research to record. To be fair, you could feel Mr. Guirgis' argument resonate with different pockets of the audience. It's not that his argument is so obscure but it probably wouldn't hurt to have a catholic school background, have an affinity for hip hop, not be offended by swearing saints while still having enough religious doubt to be engaged. That's a tricky venn diagram for any audience.
The reason to brave the two and half hours is for the actors - 17 of them. That's right - 17. When's the last time you got to see a cast that large - outside of a musical or christmas show? Theater economics being what they are you certainly won't enjoy that many actors on one of our regional stages.
There's something viscerally thrilling about feeling that many actors onstage: a gift to get to meet that many characters and enjoy so many beautiful performances.
So do a quick google search for Judas' backstory, find a friend who served time in a catholic school, and enjoy an evening of religious doubt.
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" plays at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood through August 24th.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Photo courtesy of Breedlove Productions.