There is a god in the L.A. theater community and his name is Josh T. Ryan. A founding member of Zombie Joe’s Underground, Ryan brings an ambitiously fresh, determined sensibility as the newly appointed director to Breedlove Productions’ second staging of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” and raises an otherwise would-be Lazarus from the dead.
It’s rare for a show to experience a transfiguration after its initial reception received less than stellar reviews, (*earning a tepid 66% Bittersweet on the Los Angeles theater review aggregate website Bitter-Lemons.com). Aided by a clearer vision unrestrained by moodier nuances, Ryan reframes a courtroom set in an urban barrio of Purgatory into a timely, poignant, sardonic discourse on matters of faith, forgiveness, brotherhood, and self-persecution.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play can rightly be accused of being overwritten and if wholly indulged, the feeling can be akin to sitting through a day of jury duty. One of the chief complaints in the majority of reviews this spring was its length and tediousness. Ryan proves he has the ability to heed criticism well and apply the analysis effectively. For any reviewers loathe on giving this production a second chance, they are well advised to forgive any previous transgressions.
Like the Good Shepherd, Ryan tends to this flock with reverent care and shrewd expediency. The philosophical and psychological conceits are adroitly handled with humor and lighter shifts, permitting the deeper revelations to naturally rise to the surface without bombastic zeal. The play clips along, gliding over unnecessary breaks in the action by sparing ponderous pauses for an electrifying charged atmosphere. These choices give a stalwart structure a playful spontaneity juxtaposed by darker shades of suspense and emotional depth.
Courtroom dramas have a way of being initially thought-provoking, but over time, fade in their immediacy and impact much like “A Few Good Men” or “Twelve Angry Men.” Trial plays are typically one-location gems with all the requisite murkiness of justice to sustain an audience. There’s a reason to their appeal, but much like the televised courtroom dramas (Zimmerman, Arias, Anthony, Simpson), once the verdict is read, even with the recent protests, the show stales. “Judas Iscariot” runs into much of the same dilemma. The strength lies in the broad generalizing of ideals rather than rooting out the devil in the details. Judas Iscariot embodies humanity on trial for its spiritual hypocrisies to its ego-driven hubris. Punishment is meted out by his eternal regret—a cold comfort in the act of self-flagellation, but a lesson artfully portrayed in the ever-shifting polarities and dynamics of moral perspective and repentance.
Couching the characters with street-wise attitudes and prideful boasting, a smattering of who’s who dearly departed notorieties make special appearances both on and off the witness stand. The potentially novel but soon cumbersome VIP roster is where Guirgis’ overstuffs the play with too many cameos from the saintly Monica to the stuffy Freud. Lucifer, nicknamed Lou, and Mother Teresa are thrown in for comic relief, but those germane to the Christian texts such as Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the Elder, Mary Magdalene and only four out of the 12 disciples other than Judas himself, have but the briefest appearances by comparison. It makes for a perplexing imbalance in the material itself, but Ryan smoothes over the incongruity with brilliant rhythm and elegant staging borne out in flashbacks and probative testimonies.
The multi-racial cast provides an appealing layer of spiritual and physical profundity. Mortal prejudices are neatly eradicated with moving affect, particularly the exquisite Dee Smith as Judas’s mother Henrietta as she grapples with love and an intuitive contempt. Keedar Whittle projects a formidable strength as Pilate, balanced by John Szura’s indignant Caiaphas. Alex Walters gives Freud an excellent elitist turn. Sarah Ruth Ryan as defense attorney holds her own with unflinching resolve as Robert Paterno hams up the cross-examinations in an amusing counterbalance. Robin Michelle McClamb gums out a provocative Mother Teresa followed by a charming, enthusiastic Satan by Marc Erickson starkly contrasted to a hippie-toned Jesus by Cooper Daniels. Disciples are rounded off with colorful, humorous portrayals by Wasim No’Mani, John Danna Kenning, Christian Gibbs, and Brian Robert Harris. John Falchi imbues Judge Littlefield with Bible-Belt exasperation. Faith Imafidon radiantly shines as St. Monica. Robert Walters' haunted Judas finds moments of satisfying angry denial and avid culpability.
There’s a sense of irony as “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” pivots on the idea of absolution. Critics and audiences may find themselves wrestling with understandable doubt much like Thomas, but seeing this remount with Ryan at the helm should leave them feeling born again.
*As of the published date, the current rating on Bitter-Lemons is holding at 72% Bittersweet. I have faith that as reviews trickle in, this statistic will reflect more favorably.
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”
Runs through August 24
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Hudson Backstage Theater
6539 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90038
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