Interesting premise. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, suggests what could happen if Judas, the most despised of the New Testament villains, were put on trial in purgatory. A new theater company, Breath Productions, is presenting it at Pawtucket's Hope Artiste Village (through May 23), directed by Bob Colonna.
The trial takes place in a little corner of purgatory called Hope. Judas isn't in any shape to defend himself, sitting off somewhere in a self-imposed catatonic state over his guilt. An uncaring judge initially refuses to accept the case, even though the writ is signed by St. Peter. It takes a go-ahead by God him- or herself for Judas's fired-up lawyer, Cunningham (Leann Heath), to get the proceedings underway.
The Big Boss is undoubtedly "himself" in this scenario, since the discussion is conventionally biblical, though with philosophical underpinnings that make all this interesting enough for us non-Christians.
Another way that playwright Guirgis manages to not write to the choir is by having most characters talk in street language. If the St. Monica (Makiesha Horsley) portrayed here, for example, were any more street, the sister would smell of fresh asphalt. Dropping F-bombs like peanut shells, the mother of St. Augustine tells us how she "nagged God's ass" to get the trial in gear. Similarly, St. Peter (Matt Fraza) is a tough guy, a fisherman who could be working the docks as a stevedore. You'd better not say anything against fish around him, we're told, or he'll go crazy.
Judas may not be able to speak in the present time, but we do get to see him "on tape" in previous activity. As a boy, he's presented as a kid who could go either way, morally. On the one hand, he's chastised by his mother (Sheila Grace) for shoplifting a spinning top, but on the other hand he gives it to a little girl who doesn't have one. However, on the third hand he steals a staff from a blind man the next day to sell it and buy another top.
Judas has his legitimate defenders, though. One of the apostles, Simon the Zealot (Michael Kinnane), thinks that Judas turned Jesus in "to make him act," to push him into radical action. Sigmund Freud (Greg Barbon) testifies that Judas hanged himself because he was manifestly psychotic, since suicide overcomes our entrenched survival instinct.
The most interesting psychological observation of Judas is made at the very beginning, when he is put on trial not for betraying Jesus but for the crime of despair. Mother Teresa (Emily Lewis) quotes the Trappist writer Thomas Merton's contention that despair is the ultimate development of pride. That tsk-tsking testimony by the saintly nun is offset by criticism of her, with the well-known observations that she took blood money from dictators and opposed a papal edict against anti-Semitism, etc. In similar ways, the play now and then reminds us sinners to think before throwing the first stone, even at the likes of Judas.
Perhaps the best defense of Judas is expressed by him when, opening a can of theological worms, he asks Jesus (Paul Sauvageau): "Why didn't you make me good enough?"
As indicated above, the playwright feels most comfortable having characters express themselves in street language. Most of the time that's appropriate and powerful; sometimes it's forced and unconvincing. We can assume that since Pontius Pilate (Kevin Broccoli) represented Rome as a provincial prefect, he presented an aristocratic dignity. So it's jarring to hear him defend himself using language, in every other sentence, that he must have learned from donkey drivers.
There's not a bad actor among the 20 on stage here, although the "stage" itself is pretty bad. (Big empty space, folding chairs, no graduated sightlines, no lighting.) Standouts among the performers, besides Horsley as the flamboyant St. Monica, include John Gomes, entertainingly eager as the prosecutor, El-Fayoumy; Burr Harrison, imposingly dignified as Caiaphus the Elder, holding his anger in check; and Mark Carter as an alternately feral and amiable Satan, risking going over the top but saved by well-timed humor.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot offers a twofer: food for thought about the nature and likelihood of forgiveness, plus hellaciously good entertainment.