Sunday, July 17, 2016

Third Guirgis play this year shows he is a genius, and so is Sound Theatre Company!

Shermona Mitchell and Jose Abaoag in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Photo by Ken Holmes)
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Sound Theatre Company
(at Seattle Center’s Armory Theatre)
Through July 31, 2016

I am officially in awe of Stephen Adly Guirgis. This now Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright (2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy) has had four of his plays done fairly recently in Seattle. Three of them so far have been met with critical and popular acclaim, with several Gypsy Rose Lee Award nominations and wins (many for Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, produced by Azeotrope).

This year alone, we had Motherfucker with a Hat and In Arabia (Washington Ensemble Theatre/Hansberry Project/eSe Teatro) and In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (Theater Schmeater). Now, newly opened, we have a fantastic full-throated, killer-casted production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Sound Theatre Company reliably produces solid and well-chosen plays each summer. This is absolutely up there with their best! This is now one of the best of the year for me, no question.

LDJI is, for this day and age, a very long play. It clocks in north of three hours. But it mostly flies by like the wind, since it is unpredictable, entertaining, thought-provoking, and occasionally extremely funny. It has a very large cast, and some of those actors get only a small chance to shine. But those moments to shine are so meaty that I am completely sure that each actor feels very important to the production.

The theme of the play is the debunking of the classic “good” versus “evil” motif which is perfect to mount for this particular age and time of year. We have bunkered down, many of us, into our political Lefts and Rights, and demonization has commenced in full measure. 

For many Christians, and therefore, probably, for many people all over the world, the clearest example of “evil” might be Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus Christ. Yet, here in Purgatory, Judas gets a dogged defense attorney who seeks to uncover the nuances of Judas’ actions, despite obstacles like a Judge who does not want to hear the case and a prosecutor who seeks to interrupt or throw misogyny around like a weapon.

Judas is played by Jose Abaoag, who is called upon to sit virtually motionless for time unending, in a catatonic state. Try sitting totally still for ten minutes. It’s hard. He must do that for very large chunks of the three hours plus show! Why? Judas has lost himself to despair. The message of the play is that Hell is, essentially, despair. God cannot reach despair. Not even Satan can reach despair.

While he is catatonic, he is defended by Fabiana Cunningham (a dogged, committed Caitlin Frances), who fights her way into the trial with cranky Judge Littlefield (apt Keith Dahlgren) and against upstart prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Yusef Mahmoud, a Cornish almost-grad who really gets to show his stuff, including good comic timing, smarminess, and flair). Witnesses called include: Satan (a dangerous and funny Ray Tagavilla), Simon the Zealot (Corey Spruill in a truculent turn), Sigmund Freud (Sujay Chattopadhyay, who gets to present a very interesting counterpoint), Pontius Pilate (a great contradiction played by Malcolm J. West), Henrietta Iscariot (Kathy Hsieh in a moment of heartbreak), and Mother Teresa (Eloisa Cardona who shows a comic side to a more complex icon than we thought).

There is a lot of swearing. It’s a Guirgis play! But even with an amazing cast, one woman, near the beginning of the play, breaks the whole thing open wide, gloriously. Shermona Mitchell does the best work I’ve ever seen from her as Saint Monica. Her scene is so funny and outrageous that she will likely get applause every single performance.

But she’s not the only applause moment…there are several. Usually people do not applaud in the middle of a show, but this show seems to just pull it out of people. Since I’ve mentioned most of the cast, the rest are Marianna de Fazio, who delightfully introduces the play, Jesse Smith, who plays Jesus in a heart-tugging way, Andrew Shanks, who is the everyman everyone can understand, Erwin Galan, who shows great range in back to back small parts that are diametrically different, and Ayo Tushinde, who has some very interesting tidbits to add as Mary Magdalene. There really is not a weak link in the cast.

Teresa Thuman directs this massive show. As a veteran director, she has the instincts and the honed skills to manage it and pull out the humor, while zooming into the moments of deep pathos. It’s a laudatory turn. She’s aided by a great set by Bryan Boyd, some fun costuming by Margaret Toomey, moody lighting by Richard Schaefer and subtle sound design by Dana Amromin. It’s a full package.

Will you think the play is too long? Maybe. It could use a significant trim. I also think, interestingly, that the scenes where Judas actually speaks are some of the weakest scenes written, except for the last denouement with Jesus. But, I find the play growing on me in reflection, both in admiration and in complexity. That’s the mark of genius. That doesn’t happen often. My awe of Guirgis deepens.

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