Appealing hell

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Devil’s backrub: Ryan Kelly, as Satan, gets touchy with Fabiana Cunningham (Stacy Arterburn-Johnson).

Devil’s backrub: Ryan Kelly, as Satan, gets touchy with Fabiana Cunningham (Stacy Arterburn-Johnson).

photo by Nick Higman

Rated 4.0

I was a lousy Catholic. After being told in Sunday school that God had no beginning and no end, I said to the teacher, “Uh … that doesn’t make sense.” Then, after a too-cautious teacher described adultery as “betraying someone behind their back,” I thought gossiping about my friend Katie constituted adultery, and confessed as much to the baffled priest.

Suffice it to say, I have always had doubts about religion. So it was refreshing to see TMCC Performing Arts’ production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a play that boldly asks one of the biggest religious questions of them all: How could an all-forgiving God damn Judas to hell?

Guirgis, as explained in his 2005 author’s note, is a spiritual man. It’s the constructs of religion that stick in his craw: “It’s not about joining a team or a church or choosing sides or learning a prayer … it’s not about shame and guilt. It’s about You. It’s about the collective Us.” Perhaps that’s why his play seems alternately to praise and to blame.

The story takes place, for the most part, in a courtroom in purgatory. Our grumpy judge (Cecil Averett) is presented with a doozy of a case: Attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Stacy Arterburn-Johnson) has a writ, signed by God, to appeal Judas Iscariot’s condemnation to hell.

Judas’ prosecutor is the ass-kissing Yusef El-Fayoumy (Brad Ka’ai’ai), a once-tortured Arab looking to grope and brown-nose his way into Heaven.

Thus begins one hell of a courtroom drama, involving witnesses both historical and biblical, including Sigmund Freud (Bud Perry), Mother Teresa (Susan Lang), Caiaphas the Elder (also Averett), Pontius Pilate (Gregory Klino) and even Satan (Ryan Kelly) in a Gucci-wearing, show-stopping performance.

Meanwhile, Judas (Bernardi Bacardee) sits in a hole in the wall, observing the proceedings from his catatonic stupor, coming out only briefly to reenact a few flashbacks.

Throughout the play, which is hilarious and thought-provoking but runs at least 30 minutes too long, Judas’ old friends appear on side stages to reminisce and reexamine what went wrong. They include Mary Magdalene (Karen Donathan); a street-wise, foul-mouthed, spike-heeled Saint Monica (Sarah Mazur); St. Matthew (Gregory Klino); St. Peter (Kyle Johnson); and even Judas’ mom (Sue Turbow).

As the trial continues, the same question is repeated by a shrill, preachy Cunningham: If God created free will, why is Judas damned for exercising it?

What saves this play from its own long-windedness is that it’s consistently funny and sharp-tongued and makes a lot of sense—maybe too much so for those who believe without question. Plus, there are some remarkable performances—especially Ka’ai’ai as El-Fayoumy. With his too-tight suit and overly active libido, his impeccable comic timing helps him to deftly steal the show.

I also found it refreshing to see Kelly—usually so cheerful and good-natured on stage—to be such an evil, menacing Satan.

The ending, though, bugs me. Butch Honeywell (Rob Shader), as the jury foreman, tells Judas his own story of betrayal—a self-indulgent device that only adds unnecessary length to the show.

Ultimately, the TMCC players, under the direction of Paul Aberasturi, have done a remarkable job with a weighty piece that will have you laughing most of the time and asking some important questions during the rest of it.