The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Burbank's Victory Theatre presents a raw, well-acted staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play that suggests an alternative ending to the best-known savior.
I want to have a conversation.
I want to talk to you about subjects that normally insight shock and outrage, that polarize and divide as much — or more often — than they unify and inspire. I'd like to talk about hope and faith, the origins of truth and love and beauty and simplicity. The complexity of man and his duality as we live ever outward, and, only with trepidation, dare to peer at ourselves from within.
I want to talk about why we are who we are, who we bring to the table, to the bank, to the battlefield, and where we stand in our quietest moments, when we secretly wonder, "Am I enough?" And if so, "Who am I being enough for?"
I want to have this conversation because I've just come from watching The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, bowing tonight in its West Coast Premiere at Burbank's famous Victory Theatre — and like all good theatre, it has stirred in me a need to talk about bigger things that so often go unsaid.
It is these questions, the ones circling the eternal paradox of man that provide the well-girdered support of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play. I'll get into the performers in a minute, but rest assured, the speech they spoke rolled trippingly off each tongue, and helmer Patrick Riviere lent both wonderful acting chops and nimble support to a talented cast and creative team. But first, I begin with a precursor and some personal thoughts.
As I drove to tonight's show, a thought raced through my head: "Why is everyone in this town so flaky?" My brain complained as I clattered up Cahuenga Ave. I'd just been stood up, and it occurred to me that while Los Angeles may never be a theater town, the actors (and girls I accidentally keep dating) all seem to cancel last-minute or cite minor emergencies like traffic on the 101. In a town where rent is doable and the sun always shines, most people are content to live passively, to fix their lives in post.
I grumbled to myself about my stag status and sped through a yellow light. I was also nervous. I'd read the pre-press and the bios of cast and crew, but I wasn't sure how I was going to write this review.
By the time I got out of the two-hour-and-forty-minute performance, I'd still have six whopping hours to go. I'd like to think I'm great with words. Little did I know those words would quickly leave me as I settled into the Victory's intimate 90-seat house, press kit in hand.
The play gets right into the thick of it, fast-frantic for its first five minutes of exposition until the actor's first exhale — where the players realize they're in for the long haul and begin walking with the audience instead of out front of them.
The story of Last Days is a secondary one, as stories like these so often are, a diving board from the hypothetical: What if Judas got an appeal and all heaven and earth showed up for his day in court? How could one argue historically, empirically, psychologically, or spiritually just who was to blame for Jesus' death — and what would it mean if Judas were innocent?
Everyone in this cast is truly wonderful, with standout performances by Riviere himself as Judge and Caiaphias the Elder and Faith Imafidon as the inimitable Saint Monica. Nearly every member of the cast doubles or triples in role duty, and litigators Sharon Freedman and Robert Paternoboth do their parts great justice considering the Homeric volume of lines learned, carrying on without so much winking as to underwrite their jobs as the voices of respective reason. Honorable mentions go to Robert Walters' nuanced Judas and Dee Smith's Henrietta Iscariot, as well as Paul Nieman and Marc Erickson's big bold Freud and Satan, respectively. And as a big P.S.? The play itself and all the actors in it are damn funny and witty to boot.
The play, in two acts (or was it three with one intermission?), sets up that wonderful Skinner box we all play in from time to time. Questions like these are the stuff of great 3AM conversations at the 101 Diner — typically fueled in my experience by hungry minds. But this, then, is also the play's stumbling block: Its query leaves lots of room for reasoning, and little room for gnashing teeth or heart-stopping moments where no amount of logic will do. At the two-hour mark, I was nearly heavy-lidded when Riviere again stepped in to rescue, staging a live "film reenactment" of Judas' alleged recant to Pontius Pilate, a nice nod to the town we live in that also picked up the pace and put Judas' government before The Betrayer's inevitable guilty verdict.
But to the core of the play — the core! Free will vs. predestiny. Earthly duty vs. moral obligation. Sanity vs. things no sane person would choose. Indeed, one wonders, was Judas guilty for betraying his friend and possible savior? Or does the very birth of the betrayer indict the creator God for condemning his son to meet and guide the hand that led so swiftly to his cross?
And really — call the tenants of your faith whatever you want — whatever tools you use or figures you defy are yours to love as you see fit, and I truly hope that whatever you believe in makes you the best version of yourself that you can be every day.
Maybe you like Jesus, or God, or Buddha. Maybe you keep it general and chant to the Universe. Hell, maybe you secretly believe there's a Superman — I do — but the real truth is, there is an elephant in all of us that we long to poke or talk about, but don't, for fear that it might trample us.
We're humans. We love to hide behind what sermon to read on what day, how to tie a tie, or when and how to pray, or who prays right. That's fear, plain and simple. Fear that there is an answer, and we don't have it, or that the answer we think we have might actually be wrong in some greater cosmic playbook we never got before the game. We tamp down fear, the mystery of faith, by declaring what is right and what is wrong, as viewed through the eyes of creators that we have created as much as (some believe) they have created us.
I personally call that elephant "good nature"— and it is my faith that we all have a wellspring of good living deep within us as our absolute default.
Sure, people go wrong sometimes, and in varying degrees. Hitler was more than a little off course. Those folks at Monsanto have probably not looked inward in quite a while. But I believe that in all of us there is good, and that, to paraphrase Marianne Williamson, Nelson Mandela, and Morgan Freeman, "our greatest fear is not that we are powerless, but that we are powerful beyond measure."
Our egoist duality is important. It shouldn't be shunned or written off as "God and the Devil." It shows us what we want and what we don't. It begs that we be ever "more more more," and from that contrast and struggle we create stories we can choose to either believe in and defend, or smile at and move beyond. The truth, after all, can't simply be love — can it?
"Love? Simple love? But that's barely interesting! How will they ever write my awesome eulogy unless I've said it all, done it all, climbed every mountain, and fought every fight — even, and sometimes particularly, the ones I'm least proud of?"
But that right there is the simple truth of human existence as I've learned it: Love never leaves us. The ability to love and be loved is always there — it's the elephant that never stampedes but will trumpet as loud as you see fit to let him. And if you're scared of his trunk or his tusks, well then, friend-o, you just might end up running off the path yourself, or, whoops!, turning on a pal who wound up being the God's kid in Act II.
But here's the inside track. Just as Jesus washes the feet of a Judas who could no longer see and hear him at Iscariot's final curtain, so does love never really leave your heart, or your side. We have always, can always, and will always have the ability to make things right and simply be love. Convicted or not, we are all free in our hearts, and all actions that flow from that knowing can and will lead to righteous good. Just look at your own life. Good begets good. It just…does.
At the end of the day, I don't care what religion you are or how you articulate what you believe — love is the basis of all religion and faith. If you really believe in love, you leave room for that which you know in your heart is true. If you believe in love, you act in accordance with those simple, true things — and you do only those things that lift you and everyone else around you a little higher. When you tap into what you know to be true in your heart, you have found God; and can find God, no matter how far spiritually, psychologically, or historically you might stray. Ask anyone at Hay House — they'll tell you. They get it.
This, then, is the essence of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, bowing tonight and for five more weekends' worth of performances at the Victory Theatre. Rest assured, much like any group of artists who take on the Gatling gun task of laying out so complex and yet so simple a premise, the actors herein take up their torches with just the right voracity you'd hope they would, and the story leaves you brimming with a lot to talk about at the diner afterwards.
To err is human. It's something Judas, and everyone who came after him knows to be true. But to forgive yourself, to forgive others, and to move back to the path? To throw out the need for our "day in court," laying waste to the fear of our lives not being enough? That is the real path back to God, and, some would say, to living humbly and with faith.
I'm not much for religion — I'm sure you can tell. But I do feel like I have faith, and lots of it. I have faith in the Victory's Judas Iscariot. A play so well-executed as is done here doesn't come along that often — and it's a rare rose that grows through the cracks in a town paved with so many studio lots. Go see it. It will drum up more questions in you than answers, I promise. It may even lead you back to yourself just a little. And in the end, isn't that what life and art are really all about?
Patrick Cronen is a starving artist and would-be writer. He continues to model and act for bread crumbs, refusing catering and restaurant work while opting instead for sexual favors in trade and bits of student work on his reel. For more of Patrick: www.patrickcronen.com.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs at the Victory Theatre from March 1 to April 6. Directed by Patrick Riviere and produced by Dee Smith. Scenic Design by Caley Bisson, Lighting by Robert Corn, Costumes by Jannique Mosely-Niambele, and Sean Sekino, Stage Manager. The Victory Theatre (The Big Theatre) 3326 W Victory Blvd, Burbank, CA 91505. Friday and Saturday at 8PM, Sundays 4PM.
For tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/314649 or 800.838.3006.