The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, is a lot of things. It is a courtroom drama and a comedy. It is both a Christian and an existentialist apology — and it attempts to fuse those disparate philosophies. As presented by Ground Up and Rising, it is an approximation of what the progeny of magical realism and cyberpunk might look like onstage. Finally, it is an astonishing showcase for good actors and a minefield for bad ones.
Given Last Days' huge ambition, it's a shame the actors outshine the playwright at GUaR. The night I attended, Last Days ran five minutes short of three hours, and almost the entire last hour was unnecessary. It didn't explore any aspect of God or grace or philosophy that you didn't already understand. And none of the actors were able to top what they'd done in the play's mind-blowing, soul-expanding, nut-busting carnival of a first act.
Last Days is set in a courtroom, located for no reason at all in a subway station in Purgatory. You never see Heaven (well, actually you do, but you don't know you're seeing it), and Hell is apparently a shadowy area just below the lip of the stage. That's where Judas Iscariot (Jose Paredes) hangs out for the duration of the play, catatonic and haunted, while a series of expert witnesses are called to testify. Apparently some do-gooders think Judas got a bad rap, and now a Heavenly host of them, led by bawdy Saint Monica (Lela Elam) and a stubbornly agnostic attorney named Cunningham (Kameshia Duncan), has been summoned to prove what a misunderstood guy he was (is?), even as a team of, you know, devil's advocates set out to keep him in Hell.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Arturo Fernandez. With Carlos Alayeto, Kameshia Duncan, Ann Marie Olson, George Schiavone, Claudio Pinto, Lela Elam, Heather Gallagher, David Gallegos, Jenny Lorenzo, Arnaldo Carmouze, Sheuan McKinney, Reiss Gaspard, Bechir Sylvain, Reggie Beaubrun, Renata Ferreira, Jose Paredes, and Arturo Fernandez. Through August 24. Ground Up 305-726-4359, www.myspace.com/groundupandrising
Expertly drawn and vivaciously enacted versions of various saints and apostles take the stand, along with Pontius Pilate, Calaphas the Elder, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and the Devil himself. The judge overseeing the case is a Civil War-era vet named Littlefield (George Schiavone).
Until it deviates from this premise, Last Days is a play of uncommon vitality: a fast-moving Technicolor explosion of ideas, emotion, and heart. As is often the case with Guirgis plays, Last Days is really a succession of monologues, with only brief moments of drama to supply a narrative framework. And so the quality of the experience relies on the actors as solo performers.
If any cast could do it, this would be the one. The credits in the program read like a transcript of a ludicrously ambitious director's dream. Elam, Schiavone, and Duncan, along with Carlos Alayeto, Bechir Sylvain, Reiss Gaspard, and Sheaun McKinney — all at the top of the SoFla theater community. I disparage them not at all by noting that some of the night's best performances come from people whose names I've never heard before. I'm thinking especially of David Gallegos and Jenny Lorenzo. When Judas's mother Henrietta (Lela Elam again) is being deposed, she recounts an episode of his childhood, which is then enacted by these two actors, both playing eight-year-old boys. The boldness and power of their scene was shocking. It was so outsize, so surreal, yet so skillfully rendered and fun that I immediately felt as if I was watching an alternative biblical history from Warner Bros. Later in the show, Gallegos does a twitchy, nasal take on Saint Matthew, which, like all of the play's portrayals, is wholly anachronistic: This Matthew is straight out of turn-of-the-(last)-century Bronx.
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Last Days has a cast of 17, and it would be impractical to discuss each performance. But I must mention two more. Elam's conception of Saint Monica is unfathomably magnetic and weirdly sexual — Our Lady of the Pneumatic Hips. When she appeared, it was like somebody had hit the theater with a huge Taser. Throughout the bleachers, in every row, people sat with widened eyes and hands clamped over mouths.
And McKinney, playing Satan, star witness for the prosecution, has always been charismatic, but here he's literally otherworldly. He employs the same slow drawl he used in GUaR's other Guirgis play, Jesus Hopped the A Train (in which he played a sadistic prison guard), but here he's funnier, creepier, and more refined — all merriment and brimstone, wealth, and taste. This Satan could tempt you to sin, and make you like it.
These finely drawn characters, and the many more like them, could carry a premise far flimsier than Last Days', but it doesn't look like Guirgis trusted them. The second act is wrecked by insecure, nervous tinkering — the obvious product of a man without faith in his own work. It's then that Guirgis abandons the courtroom scenario, ditches almost all the characters, and tries to make a metaphysical point about the nature of free agency, godly love, and other moot issues. This is not a play for someone who chafes when a playwright seems to think he has found answers to these ancient conundrums. If this is you, then you'll probably wish you'd gone home at intermission. Which isn't to say Last Days failed to touch you. It just didn't happen the way Guirgis intended.