Through February 16, Theatre Baton Rouge will continue its Turner-Fischer City Series with The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by TBR Managing Artistic Director Keith Dixon.
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is about free will versus divine mercy,” Dixon said in an interview last week. “It asks the question: is it possible for the two to coexist? Do you have to accept salvation or forgiveness to be real, or is it given and therefore simply is?”
The play takes place in a contemporary courtroom and details a legal debate over the ultimate fate of the mytho-historical Judas Iscariot, the biblical character remembered for his betrayal of Jesus and who thus plays a pivotal role in the days leading up to the crucifixion. Like TBR’s production of Assassins last season, Last Days features a mix of characters from various times, including Pontius Pilate, Freud, and Mother Theresa.
“It’s that time warp/time bending idea,” Dixon said when I asked him about the similarities. “It’s set in a contemporary courtroom, but all these characters from across the ages come to testify or give deposition – Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, Satan, Judas’s mother, Jesus; some very interesting and provocative characters that raise some interesting questions. It’s a fascinating way to look at this story and ask the question ‘Can we be forgiven if we’re not willing to accept it’?”
The play was composed in 2005 and was first staged off-Broadway at the historic Public Theater in New York nearly nine years ago. The first person to direct the play should have a name familiar even to those who normally avoid celebrity news: the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“This is part of his legacy; even though it is not his play, the fact is that he helped shape these roles in the original production,” Dixon said when I asked him if he had anything to say about this strange coincidence. “I’m glad we’re doing this show right now.”
As part of the Turner-Fischer City Series, Last Days will not be performed at TBR’s main stage, but will instead be staged at the Hartley/Vey Theatre at Manship Theatre. This venue change means a different kind of performance area, but Dixon and his cast and crew were up for the challenge and excited about the opportunities offered by a different layout.
“It is done somewhat ‘in the round,’” Dixon said. “It’s more like an alleyway with the audience on two opposite sides, which has made for some interesting moments. It’s an intimate show; you’re right there, and the best seats in the house are in the first and second row because you’re more into the piece. The challenge of working in a new space pays off.”
As for the cast, Dixon said that there was a large turnout for auditions for this production. “I’ve got really good folks,” he said. “We’ve got a good mix of Theatre Baton Rouge veterans and some new people. Our Jesus and Judas work really well together as a nice ‘light’ and ‘shadow,’ and they have a really intense scene toward the end of the play.”
Dixon also spoke highly of the actress portraying Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, Judas’s defense attorney. “Caroline Hebert understands this woman’s misunderstanding, and the play, in many ways, is about her as much as it is about Judas. She is unwilling to accept grace; there’s a wonderful line early on where she has a writ given to a judge that is signed by God, and she says, ‘I don’t even know if I believe in God,’ and that gives you a sense of where she is. She cannot understand a God that cannot forgive Judas, and the question the play asks is ‘Has God forgiven Judas?’, and questions if Judas can accept that forgiveness. How do you navigate the sea of despair?”
The play also features Dave Besse as Saint Peter, Neil Bond, Jr. as Butch Honeywell, Benjamin Caldwell as Saint Matthew, Cindy Carter as Mother Teresa/ Gloria, and Morgan Charlesworth as Mary Magdalene. Bill Corcoran portrays Simon the Zealot/ Bailiff, and Stephen Horne stars as Jesus of Nazareth. Mike Katchmer is Judge Littlefield/ Caiaphas the Elder, Lee Kelly is Sigmund Freud, and Antoine Pierce fills the role of Pontius Pilate/ Uncle Pino. Travis H. Williams portrays Judas Iscariot, and Johnny Worsham is Satan. The production is currently being staged at The Hartley/Vey Studio Theatre at Manship Theatre at 100 Lafayette Street, and is scheduled to run through February 16. The play is recommended for adults and mature audiences.