By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Everyone, audience included, visits hell in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the Stephen Adly Guirgis drama at Risk Theatre Initiative. The setting is a courtroom in purgatory. The trial could overturn the eternal damnation of the apostle who committed suicide after betraying Jesus Christ, the defense argument being, if God forgives all sins, why, after Judas repented, was he denied entry into heaven?
That's the premise, though the judicial drama serves mainly as a rickety framework for an unwieldy vaudeville of overlong monologues by 26 characters. "Witnesses" include Satan, Freud, Mother Teresa, Caiaphas the Elder, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate and Judas' own grieving mother. Hell isn't so bad, says Satan on the stand. It is "nothing more than the absence of God...and if you're looking for a good time, that's not a bad thing."
If you're looking for a good time at the theater, however, The Last Days is the last place to find it. Going into double overtime as it crawls 10 minutes into its fourth hour—director Tom Parr IV is a glutton for punishing an audience—the play is a boring string of diatribes full of jarring gangsta jargon. Guirgis makes both saints and sinners talk dirty, injecting low shock value into adulterated Bible stories.
"A lotta muthafuckas pray to me," says Saint Monica, played by a hot-pants-clad Ginger Goldman, using an offensive ghetto accent and provocative pelvic thrusts. In his monologue, Doubting Thomas (Jim Kuenzer) characterizes Judas as "a bit of a jerk-off."
More than an hour elapses before the title character, intensely acted by red-haired Dan Forsythe, says anything. He crouches, catatonic, on the top level of the colorless four-tiered set designed by Parr.
Arguing Judas' case is defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Jennifer Pasion, flatly machine-gunning lines). She's a nonbeliever who has secured a writ from God allowing the legal appeal. Prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy (Chad Gowan Spear) slinks around the stage, a lewd buffoon given to exaggerated gestures.
Banging the gavel is a bellicose judge, a longtime resident of the underworld, having hanged himself during the Civil War. He's played by R Bruce Elliott as a lollipop-sucking crank who drawls orders like Burl Ives doing Big Daddy doing Huey Long. Later, Elliott becomes Caiaphas, the high priest mentioned in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Speaking slowly in rabbinical tones, Caiaphas struggles to explain himself. "Take your time," Fabiana says. "This is purgatory. I've got all day."
Every now and then, one of the actors does something flashy. Wilbur Penn makes Satan a charming pimp in a tailored suit and red silk pocket square (the costumes, all in the modern vernacular, are by Jennifer Ables). Penn glides onstage as Old Scratch and takes command of a lengthy cross-examination scene, over-enunciating every word. "I'm just a fallen angel trying to keep my dick hard in a monotheistic society," Penn's Satan says coolly. Later on, Penn is Pontius Pilate, caressing a putter as he recalls Jesus as "that muthafucka who talked a lot of shit."
What's Guirgis getting at? Who the hell knows? The New York-based writer loves mixing biblical allusions and modern slang in his weird plays, which tend to be taken up by companies specializing in edgy material. Kitchen Dog Theater produced his first major drama, Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, a few seasons ago. The more recent Our Lady of 121st Street, about a dead, alcoholic nun whose body disappears, opens at that theater November 16.
With The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the playwright acts like one of those young, longhaired 1970s preachers trying to save hippies' souls by injecting curse words into sermons. God makes some big effing mistakes, this play asserts; look what he did to Judas. Or maybe God really is dead and anyone who believes in salvation is a chump.
At long last, Last Days comes to that dull and ambiguous conclusion. But there's a coda. After a three-hour parade of biblical figures, on comes a man named Butch Honeywell (Scott Milligan), a blue-collar juror who launches into a non sequitur about cheating on his wife. Prolonging the pain past the point of forgiveness, Milligan slowly drains several cans of beer during a monologue that feels tacked on to an already marathon-length script.
Hell is plays like this.
David Mamet, bless him, gets it said and done with greater efficiency and to better effect in Oleanna, staged by the new Totally Wow Productions in the Black Box Theater in Oak Cliff's Hampton-Illinois branch of the Dallas Public Library.
Written in 1992 as a response to issues of gender and power raised by the Clarence Thomas hearings, Mamet's brisk two-act drama presents two characters—college professor John (played by Larry LeMaster) and student Carol (Tricia Ponsford)—in a war of words about the power of words.
In the prof's office, Carol begs for help after a failing grade. She doesn't understand the coursework, the lectures or the professor's textbook. "Paradigm" and "stoical" confuse her. "I have to pass this course!" she whines.
John, a bit of a prig, grows impatient. He's shortly to receive tenure, he believes, and is buying a new house. During the chat with Carol, John's wife phones every few minutes to remind him of an appointment with a real estate agent. But he takes time to try to calm the frazzled girl, telling her he'll help her one-on-one. It looks like she will get what many poor students wish for: a do-over.
By the second of three episodes in this 90-minute play, the power shift has begun. Carol has filed a complaint to the tenure committee, claiming John hit on her in that office meeting. Those offers of tutoring were a come-on. That hand on her shoulder felt like assault.
In the third scene, John's life is destroyed. His tenure is kaput, and he's out on his ear. Carol's campaign has worked. She blasts him with feminist rhetoric (learned from "The Group" supporting her). "You've worked 20 years for the right to insult me," she hisses.
But she'll retract all charges if he adopts her group's reading list and drops his own text from use. He snaps.
Mamet may have written Oleanna as a comment on the ugly business between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, but within the Carol v. John case lie trenchant observations on the stifling effects of the thought and speech police on modern academia. Students these days hire lawyers to appeal B-minuses and secretly record class lectures to embarrass teachers on YouTube. The power is in the students' hands now, and faculty members have to watch every P and Q.
Directed by M. Shane Hurst and Bill Fountain, the Totally Wow production doesn't quite live up to that billing. LeMaster's performance is weak. His gestures look over-rehearsed, and he stumbles through Mamet's blurts and pauses, but he gets better as the character disintegrates.
As Carol, Ponsford, a drama student at UNT, transitions nicely from pleading supplicant to tough combatant. She's a lovely young actress, whose last scene was undone just a bit the other night by a costume malfunction. As she railed at John about improper advances, the open zipper on the back of her tight skirt revealed about 6 inches of bottom.
A cuter end than Mamet had in mind.