by Byron Woods
Our review of this production is also inescapably a first critical notice on a new venue—Raleigh Ensemble Players’ new theater space, which occupies the main floor of their modest four-story brick building at 213 Fayetteville Street in the heart of downtown Raleigh. That theater finally opened for its first show this week after a couple of earlier miscues, during a capital campaign conducted over two of the most economically unstable years in the past half-century. The opening also follows a largely notable series of recent productions in spaces including Cary Academy, Cardinal Gibbons High School and the company’s own studio on the second floor of its new headquarters.
To be fair, this theater's inaugural production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot takes place in a room that remains in beta, as they say in software development. The plywood atop the just finished, shock-absorbered floor lacks the coat of dark lacquer it will gain in several weeks’ time. Theatrical lights hang from portable booms and the grated steps of an industrial iron staircase instead of a dedicated lighting grid. The vagaries of city building inspections that limited company access to the stage until opening week effectively kept set design for this show to a minimum.
Under such circumstances, certain conclusions about the space would be contingent, anticipating technical and architectural elements that will come online later this season. Unfortunately, though, the most troublesome first assessment of the new space—the one with the darkest implications for the works that are yet to come—is anything but provisional.
During construction, REP’s company management touted the flexibility their new room promised. Without anchored seating, they noted, productions could be oriented in any number of directions within it.
It’s ironic then that their initial offering utilizes, in all likelihood, this theater’s single-most problematic configuration for a show.
For it’s undeniable that The Last Days of Judas Iscariot seems cramped in this new space. Artistic director Glen Matthews appears to be running out of places to put actors, as scenes take place on the majestic metal staircase mentioned above, on the tech booth's balcony, in both of the theater's front entrances, in the center of the audience banks on both side walls, and in an aisle that run two-thirds the length of the room. Even with a modest—but capacity—audience of 55, it’s a very crowded house.
The lines of seats along the back of the theater aren’t the biggest problem with this particular three-quarters thrust stage configuration—although sightlines for second and third row viewers on a flat floor were likely to be troublesome.
But when raised banks of seats, two rows deep, are set out from opposing walls on the narrow sides of a room measuring only 22 feet by 52 feet to start with, the result leaves actors with what amounts to a landing strip about 10 feet wide in the center of the room. In this production, they stage entire scenes in that space, as well as cross into and out of a widened performance area at the front of the theater.
That, fellow theatergoers, is tight.
That architectural result demands, among other things, that the performances be so riveting—and the lighting be so specific—that we won’t be distracted by the bodies of audience members immediately adjacent to performers. If the production we saw on opening night had little difficulty on the whole providing the former, the latter remained problematic, with a front row and middle bank of viewers largely implicated in most of the show’s scenes.
Similarly glitchy were sightlines for scenes beginning at the two front entrances. The further away people on the side banks sat from the action, the more they had to crane forward—or leave their seats—to view the goings-on.
For these reasons, I expect most future productions will either avoid or significantly alter the three-sided setup which pinched performers, production and audience in this room’s first run.
Moreover, its limitations make us wonder if notable previous productions would have fit in here—or could ever do so in the future. Could REP have actually staged the show originally slated to open the room—2009’s Metamorphoses, which ran at Cardinal Gibbons? Or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the 2005 show at Cary Academy that supposedly proved that the company needed bigger accommodations than its venerable Artspace Studio 2?
Stephen Guirgis’ 2005 drama, originally written for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s LAByrinth Theater in New York, depicts a surreal courtroom drama that takes place in Purgatory. But we wonder early on if this is the famed metaphysical staging ground between Heaven and Hell or merely its Wild West namesake in Wyoming, given the dubious jurist presiding here. Actor Shawn Smith’s venomous hanging judge is a man in black for whom court has apparently been in session ever since a misunderstanding aboveground back in 1864.
Unwelcome in his chambers is actor Lori Scarborough Ingle’s defense attorney, Fabiana Cunningham. She wears a smart, contemporary power suit—and has a signed writ of habeus corpus from on high for an unlikely defendant: the title character, Judas Iscariot.
After the judge cannot vacate the writ—and actor Kenneth de Abrew’s amusing, uber-unctuous horndog of a prosecuting attorney, Yusef, shows up to contest the motion—hearings begin to determine if Judas should remain in Hell.
The self-satisfied, Stoppard-esque peregrinations of Guirgis’ script veer repeatedly from clever to not so nearly. A brace of expert witnesses including Caiaphas the Elder, Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa takes the stand between the extended expository speeches of St. Monica (Lormarev Jones). In this work, the mother of St. Augustine is vividly—and perhaps repellently—reimagined (if not reduced) to nearly something of a racial cliché. Call her Our Lady of the Hood: a smack-talking, roller-skating, most righteous mama—of sorts—whose lengthy, streetwise exposition of early Christianity is leavened with a generous dose of profanity, ‘cause that’s how they roll in Heaven, yo. Pontius Pilate (Adam Rogers) proves her counterpart from the white bread side of hip hop; a first-century g with detachable swagger.
Guirgis entertains several hypotheses about the motives behind the Judas kiss. Was he merely psychotic, a consummate hypocrite—or actually on Jesus’ side, helping him achieve his destiny? Did he act to force the hand of the Jews, the Romans—or God’s? Was he a proto-Christian redneck, or that culture’s Tupac? The possibilities are intriguing, even if some seem more far fetched than others.
But irrelevant testimonials for Jesus by St. Paul and Matthew that do nothing to advance the plot, a largely pointless sequence demonstrating that—brace yourself—Judas was a good boy and a bad boy at times as a child, pages of dilatory flattery by prosecutor Yusef, and a needless subplot about a jury of contingent souls whose only purpose is to set up the final monologue of the play—these deficits considerably pad and weaken Guirgis’ two acts.
Director Glen Mathews and actor Ingle find the nerveless iron in Fabiana's defense attorney—even if a late scene in which she can’t lay a glove on the Prince of Darkness (the typically charismatic Lucius Robinson) when he’s on the witness stand turns too melodramatic.
For his part, Robinson ably plays the silver-tongued devil first before using words to coolly and effectively dismantle all parties in his sight during act two. But Satan's menace is inappropriately diffused in one scene between the time he performs a violent act across stage and then crosses to individually threaten Fabiana. Or perhaps it doesn’t register because Robinson's back was turned, during that presumably dramatic moment, to the majority of the audience, including your correspondent—a gaffe in stage direction.
Actor George Jack vests Caiphas the Elder with considerable dignity, even if his range is challenged by the velocity of that character’s ultimately righteous anger when assessing the historical record at the end of his scene.
Guirgis’ placement of the monologue of Butch Honeywell, a possibly not-so good-old-boy (played with feeling by David Henderson), telegraphs the playwright’s views on what he and the title character might ultimately have in common. But Matthews' direction of Ryan Brock as Judas and Thaddaeus Edwards as Jesus gives us only glimmers of insight into a situation that remains an enigma at the end.
The kludgy superstructure of Guirgis' trial finally falls away, as we gather that spiritual justice is actually a much more intimate affair. Perhaps it finally comes down to who can finally forgive who—including themselves, of course. I’d call it a useful conclusion—even if the road to get there takes us a considerable distance out of our way.