The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is an interesting, sometimes moving, sometimes funny play, well-staged by Stray Cat Theatre, and you can sit and enjoy it with or without believing in God (or, apparently, in Judas Iscariot, which is a separate thing, according to an acquaintance who remarked to me afterward, "They left out the part where Judas Iscariot wasn't a real person. He wasn't a real person, you know").
No matter where you're coming from, though, the part that's supposed to make you think probably will, over the next few days or so. Not necessarily consciously -- but think you will.
The play's structured as a courtroom drama, an appeals case that might spring Judas from Hell. His defense attorney thinks that the main question is whether God is crueler than he ought to be or less powerful than he ought to be. Satan, one of the witnesses -- one could say an expert witness -- says that, basically, that's the wrong question. He says the prosecution's got it all wrong, too. Yay?
The stuff about the nature of existence and morality, along with some killer performances, is what makes the play interesting. Even if you don't give a rat's ass what happens after death, you probably have values of some kind that help you choose your actions in life, and it's easy to frame the debate as being about those values rather than whether our immortal souls deserve punishment. Because, really, meh -- faith per se is lovely, but if I wanted to hang with a species that bases its behavior on the likelihood of reward, I'd spend my day with Labradors.
The courtroom is set in Hope, an alleged subdivision of Purgatory. If I take some of the dialogue at face value, it seems that Hope's court might not even exist even in the universe of the play, which is where the script falls apart a bit, for me -- if these trials don't take place, why set this discussion at one? It feels like an arbitrary raising of the stakes. (I suppose that could be the point, somehow.)
There's also a division between characters who testify and characters who just appear and talk to us. Are the latter supposed to be in Heaven and unable to visit Hope? But wait -- St. Monica stops by to deliver a writ. Then there's Satan's hissy fit while the jury's excused -- why, why, why? He's already Satan. Oy.
However, there's nothing like testimony to create monologue opportunities for actors. Arizona State University has loaned out the School of Theatre and Film's current crop of MFA Performance candidates to appear in the show, and they're having a great time chewing it up and spitting it out with such stellar local castmates as Damon Dering (Satan -- squee!), Louis Farber, and Adam Pinti. You won't mind that this is two hours and 40 minutes long.
One of my favorite scenes is pictured above. Judas' mom (Andrea Morales) recalls an episode from his boyhood in which he played with Matthias of Galilee, a bullied, disadvantaged loser. Marcelino Quiñonez' Matthias demonstrates why he's a popular actor in town -- he's an engaging person with decent technical chops, and a master's program is the place for him.
Tyler Eglen (Judas) meets an unusual challenge onstage -- he's almost always present, but he's catatonic in his "cell" most of the time. When he does come to life, usually in a flashback, he displays the depth and complexity you'd expect from the character -- if, you know, he were a real person. (Some scholars think he was introduced to the Gospel of Mark to create a Jewish enemy, thereby making early Christianity more palatable to Rome).
A few of the other actors who really impressed me (they're all good) were Chelsea Pace as an adorable, funny, and astute Mother Teresa (judge her how you will), Meg Sullivan as the spirited yet vulnerable defense lawyer, and Adriano Cabral as prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy. Cabral's program bio says little about his acting background, but holy cow, he pretty much nails the vocal and physical demands of his character and provides much of Judas' humor. He doesn't project quite enough for the treacherous acoustics of the Tempe Performing Arts Center, but he gets the important stuff across.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through Sunday, March 3, at 132 East Sixth Street in Tempe. Tickets, $15 to $25 ( or $10 for students with ID, tonight only), are scarce -- order them here or call 480-227-2020 (a temporary phone number during Cox Telephone's outage problem) . And the theater likes to remind audiences that Thursday evening performances commence at 7 p.m.