Theater

Daring 'Judas Iscariot': One More Reason to Check Out H Street Playhouse

Julie Garner and Jason McCool in "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot."
Julie Garner and Jason McCool in "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." (By Melissa Blackall -- Forum Theatre)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Psst -- there's a fabulous new show in town. But the location's a secret.

At least it feels like a secret, because audiences have been slow to accumulate in the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington. But the funky, comfortable space has become one of the city's best venues for serious theater.

That standing, unappreciated though it is, is being enhanced by Forum Theatre's exhilarating production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," a preposterously entertaining play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It's a literate cartoon, transforming familiar biblical figures into modern street-corner caricatures -- hustlers and gangbangers, yo. The bluster is profane and hugely funny, which doesn't for an instant diminish the genuine passion with which Guirgis pursues his central question.

To wit: Is the Ninth Circle of Hell truly the right place for Judas Iscariot? Can we get a witness or two, and cross-examine the roles played by Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the Elder, even Jesus himself?

This irreverent premise, plus its length (nearly three hours) and the need for a large cast comfortable swearing like school dropouts, helps explain why the play has been passed over by the more resource-rich troupes in town. That's fine with Forum, where "Last Days" has landed perfectly. Director John Vreeke has cast it with 15 actors who are coolly navigating Guirgis's demanding mix of high-minded monologues and raw comic banter.

The setting is a purgatorial court presided over by a bellowing Southern judge (Americanization is everywhere, goes one of the rapid-fire punch lines). Designer Colin K. Bills's void of a set features the dark brick walls of the theater and, for a familiar touch of bureaucratic hell, cold fluorescent lighting. The actors sit like witnesses and jury members on the sides of the stage, where those with multiple roles change into Pei Lee's neutrally shaded costumes. Visually, the show is a deliberate gray area.

Except, that is, for Satan, who enters in a blazing white suit. This commanding hipster is a bit of a cliche, perhaps, but Jim Jorgensen plays it with the kind of relaxed flair that reminds you why "devilish" is one of our most attractive adjectives. Jorgensen's Beelzebub is awfully damned likable, and even proves to be a fine listener when he meets Jason McCool's brooding Judas in a bar.

Even if the Devil's breezy style is familiar, the substance might surprise. Guirgis, author of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street," keeps spinning things as he looks for new evidence about what was really in Judas's heart, and why the case is even being brought at this time. If the Middle Eastern prosecutor is a bumbling, unctuous fool (played with oily vanity and verbal dexterity by Scott McCormick), the crusading role played by Julie Garner's no-nonsense defense attorney keeps a very human face on what is often a dazzlingly campy theological rant about God's mercy and man's free will.

The performance is a series of high-wire acts, with nearly everyone mastering vast tracts of language while keeping a steady balance between the sacred and the profane. Worth noting: Brian Hemmingsen's bluster as the judge and his lofty indignity as Caiaphas the Elder, Frank Britton's bristling gangsta turn as Pilate, Patrick Bussink's persistent Jesus, and Cesar A. Guadamuz's comic touches as the bailiff and as the character witness Simon the Zealot.

Most impressive is how Vreeke's actors fall into the spirit of an exercise that cheekily summons Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa to the stand (Maggie Glauber's contentious Mother Teresa is a particular delight) while keeping troubling questions fully in view. The ensemble is nearly flawless, treating this flamboyant but purposeful show like an answered prayer.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by John Vreeke. Sound design, Michael Dove. With Margery Berringer, Emily Webbe, Veronica del Cerro, Frank B. Moorman, Rex Daugherty and Jesse Terrill. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through May 4 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://www.forumtheatredc.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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