Michael Billingsley and JoAnna Rhinehart (photo: Shashwat Gupta)

By:  Sarah Downs

In a cavernous room on East 4th St., God is on trial.  Is he good or is he a liar?  If he really loves his flock why does he allow any of us to suffer?  Through the vehicle of a jury trial of Judas Iscariot, whose crime of the betrayal of Jesus Christ has consigned his soul to damnation, Stephen Adly Giurgis has found a metaphor through which to examine the contradictions inherent in a religion that preaches both forgiveness and damnation.   Judas repented of his greed, attempted unsuccessfully to return his blood money and hanged himself from an olive tree, but his remorse doesn’t save his soul; it only complicates the tale.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot begins with a deeply moving monologue by Judas’s grieving mother, telling us of his childhood.  Who ever remembers that Judas was once a boy?  The action then moves to Purgatory, where witnesses introduce us to the Judas they knew.  The most dynamic of them surely is Santa Monica (mother of St. Augustine – and don’t you forget it!).  Delissa M. Reynolds delights as a fast talker who harbors a touching empathy behind her bravado.

The ensemble cast is onstage throughout, stepping in as various characters, ably supporting the drama taking place on the witness stand.  Among the cast are several standout performances.  Javier Molena as Satan is one sexy devil – but don’t be fooled by his hollow laughter.  This fallen angel can burn you.  Daniel Grimaldi as prosecuting attorney is just the right amount of smarmy and annoying, but with telltale viciousness lying just below the surface.  As Pontius Pilate LeLand Gantt is extraordinary, flashing facet after facet of his character as he moves easily through a range of idioms.  His physicality is character defining; his vocal power stunning.  Judas’s unfaltering defender, Suzanne DiDonna commands the stage, not just because of the enormous amount of script she has mastered but by her intelligent, sympathetic, believable, and sensitive portrayal of a woman committed to defending a man she believes unjustly treated.   Satan may try to thwart her; nevertheless she persists.

One issue I have with the play is its length.  The author could easily cut 1/2 hour off and still do justice to his subject.  I would also wish for more creative blocking and visuals.  The set is a bit self-consciously rag-tag and other than the first haunting image of Judas’s mother, compellingly played by JoAnna Rhinehart, there are few discernible lighting choices throughout.  The actors are forced to push in order to make an impression in what is, basically, a brightly lit room.  I also found the constant reference to the bosoms of a few of the female characters both a little obvious and annoying.  It’s too easy a get.

Regardless of the above, however The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is an excellent, if verbose, piece of writing well worth the seeing.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Estelle Parsons

WITH with Richarda Abrams, Bob Adrian, Michael Billingsley, Fig Chilcott, Stephen Dexter, Suzanne Di Donna, Lash Dooley, Timothy Doyle, Gabe Fazio, David Fraioli, Jason Furlani, Gabriel Furman, LeLand Gantt, Jose Ignacio Gomez, Daniel Grimaldi, Shashwat Gupta, Con Horgan, Liana Jackson, Jay Johnston, Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt, Beth Manspeizer, Javier Molina, Marcus Naylor, Myla Pitt, Taylor Plas, JoAnna Rhinehart, Delissa M. Reynolds, and Count Stovall.

Sets: Peter Larkin, Sound Deign: Erich Bechtel; Costumes: Court Watson; Lights: Mike Riggs; Music: Yukio Tsuji; Assistant Director: Jessia Shechter.

Presented by La MaMa, in the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th St., March 9-26, 2017; Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., Sundays at 4:00 p.m.  www.lamama.org.