It’s true. He told me himself. Funny thing, though — he looks a lot like Damon Dering of Nearly Naked Theatre, recently nabbed by Ron May to bring a debonair twist to the angel who always seems to get a bad rap in the Stray Cat Theatre production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
I’m especially interested in the works of playwright Guirgis these days knowing that Pace University in NYC, where our daughter Lizabeth studies acting, is presenting his “Our Lady of 121st Street” in a little theater off Times Square this Spring. Turns out she used a monologue from yet another Guirgis play during college auditions — though Satan was nowhere to be found in that one.
But he’s a star witness in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which imagines a trial for the man known to many as the discpline who betrayed Jesus, with a kiss, for thirty pieces of silver. So too are Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and several others — including Iscariot’s own mother.
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” opens with the reflections of Iscariot’s mother — which makes for one of the most compelling monologues out there these days. How does a mother come to grips with her son being accused of something so horrific? Or taking his own life? If such things flow from a just and loving God, she wants no part of it.
The play poses weighty questions about both the nature of God and the nature of man, dressed in humor and accessorized with words you won’t find in the Bible. Free will and destiny. Hubris and humility. Justice and mercy. Hope and despair. It’s all there, along with questions about the accuracy of history and the authority of those in power.
How saintly was Mother Teresa, really? Did writing all those tomes really qualify Freud as an expert on our inner lives? Why have the Jews been blamed all these years for Jesus’ death? How accurate can the gospels be considering their differences — and their authorship by those who weren’t eyewitnesses to the things they seek to recount?
One character notes that Western civilizations exalt honesty, while Eastern civilizations favor loyalty. Another observes that people only respond to fear and threats, implying that belief in heaven drives most good deeds. The dialogue, both densely packed and quickly paced, borders on being too much of a good thing.
Unless, of course, you’re a theology geek whose spine tingles at the mere mention of ontology. Or routinely drops names like Kierkegaard and Hegel — both mentioned in the play. After seeing Stray Cat Theatre perform “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” I finally have an anwer for all those people who wondered how I’d ever put all that doctoral study in the philosophy of religion to good use.
Still, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is plenty accessible to folks who chose more practical pursuits. I suspect it says something quite different to atheists than to believers, but it’s a worthy exercise for both in thinking about big questions of both past and present.
Most of all, I think, it’s a treatise on the future. Like the musical “Godspell,” Guirgis’ “Last Days of Judas Iscariot” reminds us that it’s possible to create a sort of heaven on earth. But only by serving the least among us without expectation of reward.
Note: “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which contains mature themes and language, runs through March 3. Click here for show and ticket information. And pause a moment to reflect on the life and work of John Hick (1922-2012), an accomplished philosopher and theologian with whom I was privileged to study.
Coming up: Shakespeare meets Victor Hugo