THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by David Ferry, with Garnet Harding, Irene Poole, Sanjay Talwar, Frank Moore, Diego Matamoros, Cara Ricketts, Paul Braunstein, Stewart Arnott and Aviva Armour-Ostroff. Presented by Birdland at the Fermenting Cellar, Distillery District (55 Mill). Opens Wednesday (November 16) and runs to November 20, Wednesday-Sunday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $25. 416-872-1111.
American writers really know how to use the courtroom as a source of theatrics. Think about In Cold Blood or The Executioner's Song, or Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men in either its play or film version. And then there's the whole Law & Order franchise.
But you won't find any legal drama as audacious as Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot. Set in a suburb of Purgatory called Hope, its action is a trial in which two lawyers try to prove the innocence or guilt of Judas, forever stuck with the metaphoric mark of Cain for having betrayed Christ.
It's often riotously funny, sometimes deeply moving and has the kind of sass you find in music videos.
Like another of Guirgis's plays, Jesus Hopped The A Train, Last Days is filled with fascinating characters and grabs viewers with its extraordinary language.
"His language is so wonderfully contemporary, drawn from the New York streets where he lives," says director David Ferry, who's helming the upcoming Birdland production.
"His characters have names we know, like Pontius Pilate and Saint Monica, but they're not the types we expect. Monica, for instance, is a hiphop streetwise, nagging single mother from one of the projects. Her street idiom changes, though, when she finds Judas and is moved by his sadness."
Ferry's assembled a great cast of actors for the show's brief run, including Irene Poole and Sanjay Talwar as the opposing lawyers, Diego Matamoros as Satan and Frank Moore as the post-9/11-style judge who is more convinced of his own rights than of those of the people he tries.
"We spent the first week of rehearsal just talking about the play, its language and its arguments," he recalls. "We want to be sure that all the points made are concrete to the action and not airy-fairy.
"I see the unifying image of the play to be a sigh of despair, one that every character heave at some point during the show. It's despair that's at the centre of Judas's sadness, and that's why Dante puts him in the ninth circle of hell, being eaten by a three-headed Satan.
"Guirgis has said that as a kid he couldn't understand why other people didn't forgive instantly, as he did. He couldn't figure out why God didn't forgive Judas, and that's what inspired this play."
The play is full of contemporary echoes, with Pontius Pilate reminiscent of a contemporary U.S. general with control over a foreign land, and Simon the Zealot a Middle Eastern fanatic determined to drive outsiders from his home.It's being played in the Distillery District's Fermenting Cellar, with set and lighting devised from found objects.
"The presentation and the staging feed into the ritual nature of the piece," adds Ferry.
"The play's about theatre, courtroom and religion, so it makes sense to ask the actors to create a religious atmosphere in the theatre space.
"But with 15 actors talking religion and politics all the time," he smiles, "you can imagine that we almost never get any rehearsing done."