When it comes to putting up a show, Los Angeles' small theater community isn't generally known for its readiness to give a play a second chance. The custom here is to roll the dice, stoically accept what comes and then quietly move on to the next project.
But nobody told that to actor and first-time producer Dee Smith. So when her revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' sprawling, three-hour Everest of a theological courtroom drama, 2005's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, played for five weeks last spring at Burbank's Victory Theatre to mixed reviews, Smith did the unthinkable — she refused to go gentle into that good night.
Three-and-a-half months later, Smith and Judas Iscariot are back at a new theater (Hollywood's Hudson Backstage) with a new director (Josh T. Ryan), a new design team (set artist Annie Terazzo & costumer Jenise Smith) and half of a new cast in a top-to-bottom reconception of the entire production.
Smith's apparent dissatisfaction with the first go-around is understandable. In plays like 2003's Our Lady of 121st St. and 2011's The Motherfucker in the Hat, Guirgis has cemented a reputation for writing blisteringly funny ruminations on the fractured lives and moral conundrums of his lumpen underclass characters in the explicitly off-color language of contemporary New York street vernacular. Yet original director Patrick Riviere's bloodless, plaster-saint handling of Judas Iscariot packed all the stage fireworks of a Holy Week church service.
By contrast, Ryan's redux version is nothing short of a revelation — it is altogether a far leaner, tauter, more finely grained and vividly (and surreally) imagined animal. Most crucially, the new staging restores the grit and the ghetto to the play's characterizations; because though the setting is literally a Purgatory courtroom, the play's caustic wit and edgy energy derive from the semi-sacrilegious conceit that this Purgatory is a sort of sixth borough located somewhere in the mean streets beyond Washington Heights.
The “action” takes the form of a Grisham-esque courtroom drama that will decide the afterlife fate of the story's titular Christ betrayer. But essentially Judas Iscariot is a stridently didactic play of ideas that drops names ranging from Kierkegaard and Hegel to Thomas Merton and Sigmund Freud in a philosophic debate on the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in the face of the most “unpardonable” sin in all of Christendom — despair. It's the kind of fundamentally undramatic material, in other words, where only the rigorous specificity of the acting can resist backsliding into tendentiousness.
The good news is that this 14-actor ensemble's portrayals of the play's 20-odd witnesses drawn from the New Testament, the early church and recent history feel as real as if they've just stepped out of a Crenshaw Boulevard Starbucks.
Smith's own dual roles — as both Henrietta Iscariot, the grieving mother of Judas, and as the apostle Mary Magdalene — remain as sharply etched as before, but with a newfound clarity of contrast. There can now be no confusing the heartrending emotional wreckage that is Henrietta for Magdalene, who has been reborn as a show-stopping Nubian princess.
Likewise, Robert Paterno has been invited back from whatever bizarre, frat house burlesque of the malaprop-prone Egyptian prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy he was playing in the previous staging to rejoin Ryan's production — along with Sarah Ruth Ryan's straight man of a defense attorney — as the very funny fulcrum of much of the play's comedy.
In fact, the entire ensemble moves from strength to riveting strength: There is John Szura as Caiaphas the Elder, a tower of dignity plaintively pleading the case of his people. Keedar Whittle's Pontius Pilate, a seductively amiable if mendacious cross between Jay-Z and Sheriff Lee Baca. Wasim No'Mani's startlingly self-certain St. Thomas. Brian Robert Harris' emphatically militant Simon the Zealot, seemingly lifted from a streetcorner Occupy demonstration. And the return of Marc Erickson's Satan, but this time as an oily incarnation of a flamboyant, Fisher Stevens-like sleazebag in black eyeliner.
It is the kind of pungently realized gallery of biblical personalities, stripped of hagiographic sentimentality, that provides the perfect dramatic relief to the frightening stillness of Robert Walters' centerpiece turn as the catatonically traumatized Judas.
Ryan and company haven't solved all of the play's considerable dramatic challenges — most notably the point in the second act where the aridity and abstraction of Guirgis' intellectualism begins to take its toll and drag down the energy. But what the company has done is invigorate a difficult and provocative text by an important contemporary playwright in a vastly satisfying, provocative and near-definitive production.
And while the show's critical success has vindicated Smith's faith in the power of Guirgis' text, it doesn't really explain her near-messianic determination to get it right.
Smith, a stage and film actor who was born in L.A. and is literally straight out of Compton, says she first came to Judas Iscariot as part of an earlier production that imploded during rehearsals.
“When I first read the play,” she recalls, “I initially fell in love with Henrietta and with the whole Judas section of it. … It instantly gave me another take on Judas. He's like all of us — he made a mistake. We all make mistakes everyday. I knew it was a play that I could put up that would move people, that would cause people to think and start their own dialogue — whatever that means for them — [in] their spiritual walk.”
She immediately formed her producing entity, Breedlove Productions, and, after finding first an investor and then a passionate collaborator in Patrick Riviere, took on the play as a producer and actor. But Riviere proved conservative and directed the piece with “a heavy Catholic hand,” Smith says. And, she adds, “I knew that wasn't the writer's intent.”
Enter Josh T. Ryan. Smith first crossed paths with Ryan at NoHo's Zombie Joe's Underground Theater, where the director began his career as a ZJU co-founder and has carved out a reputation for his iconoclastic and punk-inflected productions of both the classics and ZJU's modern interpretations of Grand Guignol.
Ryan made it to the first production's closing night performance, which happened to be on Good Friday. “It was hard to sit through,” he admits. “I thought that the version they did was dogmatic and traditional, and borderline musical theater. You know, I'm an anarchist/communist and I'm an atheist/agnostic, so the more dogmatic you get, the more I just want to burn the theater down.”
Instead of committing arson, Ryan committed to the reboot, primarily, he says, because “[Dee is] my friend. … It wasn't this big artistic 'Oh my god, I gotta do this!' Light didn't shoot out of my ass and Christ didn't come and talk to me on my shoulder to do this play, do you know what I mean? It was important to a friend.”
Of the returning actors, the director laid down one condition: “If you were an actor coming back,” he says, “it had to be an expansive experience. They have to do something different, or else why are they back? If it was my own play and I was the producer, I'd have recast the entire play. But I'm not the producer. And the new actors I brought on, I brought on for very specific reasons.”
He also set about to make what happened on stage more of an integrated group activity, to help pick up the pace. Out went Guirgis' scene blackouts, with the exception of a final transition to the play's climactic, stand-alone flashback featuring Jesus (Cooper Daniels) and Judas. And, more crucially, Ryan subjected the text to what he calls “a light edit” — light enough, that is, not to violate Smith's contractual obligations.
Those efforts clearly paid off. The new runtime is 30 to 40 minutes less than the Riviere production, and the Ryan staging crackles with an engaging vibrancy that its predecessor never had.
As to why Smith wouldn't quit, the actor-producer shrugs and finally attributes her perseverance to “just being stubborn. I knew I could put it back up and make it better with another director.”
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is at the Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m., through August 24. (323) 960-7738, plays411.com/judas.
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