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A trial for the ages

Theatre Pops presents ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’

Theatre Pops’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”

Theatre Pops’ production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is a bold choice here in the Bible belt. The play takes on the title character, Judas—persistently reviled throughout history—in the form of a trial to determine his ultimate fate. Utilizing strong language, many of the characters speak more like people from the New York City streets than inhabitants of Purgatory. This is part of the play’s genius: we are never mired in the turgid speech often found in historical dramas.

“I was trying to demystify people we’ve always thought of as saints,” said author Stephen Adly Guirgis. “The apostles were common people: fishermen and tax collectors. The idea was to communicate to the audience that these were regular folk.” 

This is evident in the Theatre Pops production, where we feel a kinship with the characters because they reveal themselves through naturalistic speech.

Guirgis uses a broad approach in crafting the trial, showing many differing perspectives on Judas by having a wide variety of characters testify, including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and even Satan. 

“In the state of Oklahoma, where many of us take the story of Jesus and Judas for granted, I think putting a contemporary face on the story is important,” said Angela McLaughlin, co-director of the play. Rick Harrelson, the play’s other co-director, concurred. 

“When we view something from more than one perspective we gain a clearer and more robust understanding of that thing,” Harrelson said.

“Judas” is Guirgis’s most frequently produced play and it’s easy to understand why. The script provides a range of viewpoints, not only on Judas and the other biblical characters, but takes aim at iconic twentieth-century figures as well. Mother Teresa (a hilarious Barbara Murn) and Sigmund Freud (Thomas Hunt, who also assays the role of Satan), perhaps saints in their own realms, are shown to be flawed people, rife with contradictions. This provides a modern counterpoint to figures in Judas’s story who are too far back in history to be fully known. The historical characters are treated to the same intense cross-examination as the modern paragons. The play entertains while asking us to think about our own assumptions and philosophies.

Guirgis attributes his interest in Judas from third grade lessons in Catholic school, where the nuns wouldn’t say definitively that Judas went to hell but hinted that he had. It became a crisis of faith over the nature of divine judgment for Guirgis. The play speculates about Judas’s destiny in the afterlife and examines larger concerns about spiritual issues such as compassion and the possibility of redemption.

Theatre Pops’ production of the play is straightforward and earnest. The pace of the performances is uneven at times, some of which is attributable to the script. During our interview, Guirgis candidly acknowledged, “The play is flawed.” It’s true: certain scenes are overly long or have identically escalating arcs, creating a rhythm that is predictable and disengaging. Other moments, however, played with heart and simplicity, genuinely draw us in through writing that vectors easily between funny, unsettling and thoughtful.

Some performances are outstanding. Blake Simpson as Matthias of Galilee is moving as a kid whose only desire is to own a spinning top like the other kids; his Simon the Zealot is a know-it-all street punk, spoiling for a fight. Michelle Cullom brings verve and wit to her portrayal of Guirgis’s sassy-as-I-wanna-be version of Saint Monica, while Timothy Hunter does fine work with monochromatic Judge Littlefield and the self-justifying Caiaphas the Elder. Andy Axewell plays an arrogantly unrepentant Pilate and then eases the play toward its luminous end as heartbroken Butch Honeywell. Forgiveness is possible, for Butch and for Judas (a solid Chris Williams). Freddie Tate presents us with quiet humility in his portrayal of Jesus, delivering compassion in the final moments of the play where Jesus kneels to wash the feet of Judas. In the end, the trial is beside the point: no human failing is irredeemable.

The play calls for a huge ensemble: fifteen actors portray twenty-seven characters. Everyone in the cast is up to their roles and the energy on stage seldom flags. The production succeeds in bringing to life a difficult script and its provocative ideas without settling for easy or stock choices. 

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” runs nearly three hours with intermission; the play contains strong language and sexual references—definitely not for children. The show runs Thursday, April 6, through Sunday, April 9 at the Tulsa PAC Liddy Doenges Theatre. Visit theatrepops.org for more information.

For more from Michael, read his interview with Tulsa World Scene writer Jim Watts.