A deviation from Knox’s usual palette, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was no “edgy” postmodern diatribe of agnostic pop philosophy, but wound up with a definitely Christian message. Despite being an atheist, I found this refreshing. If you’re a Christian who avoided it expecting blasphemy, you missed out.
Set in Purgatory, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”, directed by Adam McDowell and written by Stephen Guirgis, portrays an appeal trial in which two of Purgatory’s inmates debate the justice of the titular apostle’s damnation. Four neurotic and contentious characters people the court, while a panoply of witnesses dart on and off stage, and often seem to be on trial themselves. The judge (senior Mike Giese), a Civil War veteran who died by suicide, stonewalls the case at first, and (like most of the characters) thinks the idea of appealing Judas’ sentence absurd. The stubbornly agnostic Fabiana Cunningham (sophomore Kristen Chmielewski) earnestly defends Judas and suffers constant abuse for her troubled life of tumultuous romantic entanglements and multiple abortions. Yusef El-Fayoumy (junior Eli King) clowns through a showy, inflammatory prosecution, which he hopes will get him a quick ticket to Heaven. A bailiff (junior Shane Donegan) cowers at the judge’s left hand. The long list of witnesses ranges from Sigmund Freud (sophomore Carla Hamilton) to Mary Magdalene (freshman Sundee Perkins), and even Lucifer herself (also Hamilton). Judas (senior Matt Allis) was not in the courtroom but appeared in two powerful scenes set at the ninth level of Hell.
McDowell and the cast did well with an interesting but flawed script. I’ve stopped trying to picture where Guirgis’ train of thought had traveled when he decided to turn this idea into a comedy. I enjoyed the play, but despite all the colorful costumes, funny accents, and zany modern twists on first-century personages, neither I nor my fellow audience members laughed often. The aforementioned twists were sometimes so incongruous that the metaphors being attempted were a mystery, such as Pontius Pilate’s portrayal as a vulgar, wifebeater-clad Philadelphian (a characterization that was clearly present in his lines, and thus not a directorial decision). The comedic elements seldom direct or rely on the plot; they’re tacked-on distractions from the serious topics under discussion. This was a good idea for a play, but it was not in the genre of Dogma and Good Omens, nor should it have tried to be.
However, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” does find its way to a good tragedy, despite its attempts at humor. Chmielewski and King had excellent chemistry, and did a good job juxtaposing the twin Christian dramas of Fabiana’s attempts to argue with God’s judgment and Yusef’s struggle to gain Heaven’s favor by cruelly parroting what he thought God wanted. In addition, a short but beautiful scene between Jesus (Pier Debes) and Judas was a perfect end to the play, with Jesus struggling to bring Judas out of his despair in Hell as Judas stubbornly denies His forgiveness.
The play made a lot more sense and got a lot more interesting when I realized it wasn’t really about Judas Iscariot, but the ways in which people puzzle and argue over divine mercy and justice. According to any Christian theorem I’ve heard of, it would be absurd for God to delegate His judgments to a bunch of flawed souls in Purgatory. The situation makes more sense if regarded as a theological exercise for the judge, lawyers, and jury. At the end, the jury’s decision seems to have no impact on Jesus’ conversation with Judas. In the course of the play, the characters’ own hang-ups and moral shortcomings are as salient as their legal and philosophical arguments. The judge roars louder whenever someone compares his own suicide to Judas’. Fabiana’s arguments grow more desperate at any insinuation that her knowledge of Freud, Marx and Kierkegaard might not be relevant to understanding God’s nature. Yusef’s mockery becomes increasingly manic as his own compassion and right to judge others are questioned. All bristle at the mention of their own sentences in Purgatory. The setting is not a courtroom, but a classroom.