Arts & Culture

Religion and spirituality collide in PW’s ‘Judas’

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

Set in the courtroom bowels of purgatory, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” opens Friday at Production Workshop. Exploring controversial issues of religion, forgiveness and spirituality, “Judas” invites audience members to continuously question the paradoxes and contradictions that characters face, even after the lastcurtain call.

Judas Iscariot, played by John Racioppo ’11, has been in hell since the day he hung himself in a potter’s field over the shame of betraying Jesus. Now his case is being appealed, but does he want it to be? Calling forth a long list of witnesses, including apostles, Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and Satan himself, the court debates religion, politics and motive.

The play addresses “the difference between religion and spirituality,” said director Jacob Combs ’11. It asks the question, “Have we lost the connection to the spiritual through the institutionalism?” he added.

The characters are so well developed and embodied by the actors that even double-casting does not impede the audience’s understanding of the text.

When Caiaphas the Elder is called to the stand, for example, the judge, played by Doug Eacho ’11, excuses himself from the courtroom on grounds of conflict of interest. A minute later, Eacho is back, but now he is no longer the loud, Southern judge he has been, but the aristocratic, 613-laws-of-the-Torah-abiding Jewish high priest of millennia past.

Other show-stopping characters include a sassy Saint Monica played by Chantel Whittle ’12 and confident, smooth and, above all, smug Satan played by Brady Waibel ’12. Whittle describes her character as a “powerful and opinionated, but soft and motherly black woman.”

Waibel’s Satan, familiarly known as Lou, is anything by soft. Complete with a Gucci suit, graceful stride and twisted smirk, not to mention an unfailingly chilly delivery of disparagements, he leaves viewers more than a little wary themselves.

The two lawyers are equally important to the show. The hilarious, fast-talking and overly flirtatious prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy, played by Jonathan Gordon ’11, is a joy to watch. His comedic timing is on point throughout the show.

Judas’ lawyer, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham is a different type of character altogether. “I was really worried because my character isn’t outlandish or comedic,” said Elana Siegel ’11, who plays Cunningham. “She is the voice of the playwright … and I didn’t want that to get lost in the mix. Understanding what Cunningham says is what you leave thinking about.”

Cunningham’s impassioned speech toward the end of the second act questions Satan on the nature of God and demands answers — to receive none.

This is what the play is about: people have to answer their own questions, no matter how hard that might be. Such is the case with Judas. Driven into a catatonic state of despair by the guilt of his betrayal, Judas awaits salvation from Jesus. But he cannot forgive himself and muster the strength to leave his personal hell.

Combs said he hopes the play will open new conversations and thoughts about something most Brown students stray away from — religion. “By not talking about it, we’ve made it a sacred subject,” Combs said, citing the awkward moments that occur when religion enters the dialogue. Combs, brought up by a Jewish mother and a Christian father, said this religious perspective piqued his interest in religious communities at Brown and their associated stereotypes. After reading “Judas,” Combs knew he wanted it staged at Brown to expand that conversation.

Consequently, one of Combs’ biggest goals for the production is to tackle the stereotype that students are just a bunch of atheists and agnostics who are cruel to people who practice a structured religion, he said.  

With a cast of 14, getting everyone to agree on the message the play puts forth would appear to be a challenge — one that Combs said was very important to him.

Returning to campus a week before the semester began, the cast and crew, selected in May, had a two-hour discussion about the play, its message and their own religious backgrounds, said Helen Diagama ’12, the show’s stage manager.

“People were really open,” she said. “They recognized they had to be.”

The cast also met with Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University, to discuss the story they were going to present onstage, Combs said.

Cooper Nelson will participate in a talk-back after Saturday’s performance.

The end result is a show that delivers a powerful message packaged amidst a score of comedic dialogue. Finding just the right balance between humor and gravity, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has produced a hilarious dark comedy.

“Working with — playing with really — this cast is amazing,” Siegel said. “They make me laugh out loud on stage every day against my will.”

The play presents an interesting picture of Judas, often portrayed as evil in literature. Instead, this Judas is in the most acute of pains over his actions. In addition, the audience gets a glimpse into the life of Judas before his betrayal and leaves unable to not feel compassion for the man. Racioppo easily weaves his way throughout Judas’ life, drawing the audience into one young man’s story of hope, loss and anguish.

Maybe Judas’ moral standing is up to the court after all. He did not realize that violence was never part of Jesus’ plan — and that cost him dearly. But if he cannot forgive himself, how can the jury?

This comedic controversy leaves audiences thinking and, at the same time, laughing as they leave the theater.

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is playing Sept. 17, 18 and 20 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 19 at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Production Workshop.

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