The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by John Vreeke
April 12 - May 4, 2008  *  December 5 - December 21, 2008

Helen Hayes Awards 2009 Nominee for Outstanding Ensemble

In a courtroom in present-day purgatory, the Bible's greatest and most unexplained villain is on trial, and everyone from Mother Teresa to Satan is called to testify.  Both comedic and touching, Guirgis' "street-poetic" play asks us if we are capable of true forgiveness and real compassion.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot - Directed by John Vreeke"Director John Vreeke is a master at restraining and astutely illuminating verbose plays, and this is perhaps his most satisfying effort, a production that probes the intellect, prickles the conscience and ignites the soul." 
- Washington Times

"It should not astonish you to discover that John Vreeke directs this production. Whenever a play delivers a powerful emotional message - be it
The K of D at Woolly Mammoth, or Bal Masque at Theater J,  - we seem to find Vreeke’s hand at the helm. He has done his customary excellent work here."   - DC Theatre Scene

"...John Vreeke’s superb ensemble: I saw you in that thrillingly written, urgently performed, crassly funny, somehow heartbreaking play last week, and damn if you didn’t actually make a critic cry."       - Washington City Paper

"John Vreeke seems at his best when directing plays with strong intellectual questions at their core..."  "Clearly, he's no stranger to intellectual theater." - Potomac Stages

"Forum Theatre's exhilarating production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot", a preposterously entertaining play..."  - Washington Post


Washington Times

'Judas' thrills, probes
Passionate cast drive trial of famous traitor

review by Jane Blanchard
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Once you are caught up in Stephen Adly Guirgis' sprawling courtroom drama, you may kick yourself for not seeing it sooner. Most of the 15-member cast has returned for the remount of summer's successful run, and they approach the roles with commitment and startling originality.

Pontius-JudasThe 2005 drama about divine - and human - forgiveness takes place in a courtroom in Purgatory, where the overworked Judge Littlefield (Brian Hemmingsen) has just thrown out a case pending for Benedict Arnold and is surprised when the Bailiff (Cesar A. Guadamuz) announces that "God and the Kingdom of Heaven vs. Judas Iscariot" is next on the docket. A feisty lawyer with a tortured past named Cunningham (Julie Garner) has taken on the ultimate scapegoat Judas (a desolate Jason McCool), who was reportedly Jesus' favorite but betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver and then hanged himself from an olive tree.

Cunningham defends Judas on the grounds that he is guilty of "the sin of despair" and questions the logic of worshipping a vengeful, unyielding God who tells people to be compassionate and loving but cannot forgive Judas for what he did. She calls to the witness stand Mother Teresa (Heather Haney), Sigmund Freud (Jesse Terrill), Caiaphas the Elder (Mr. Hemmingsen, in a dual role), Pontius Pilate (Frank Britton), a handful of saints (Mr. Guadamuz, Rex Daugherty, and Mr. Terrill) and Satan himself - called "Lou" here and played with satiny, insinuating menace by Jim Jorgensen.

As for Judas, he doesn't seem to care much whether he's at the gates of St. Peter or those further south. He's nearly catatonic, numbed by centuries of vilification and guilt and still bewildered that his most beloved friend, Jesus (Patrick Bussink), did not rescue him from this hellish fate. Judas, like everyone else, is seeking grace.Judas and Jesus

The cast is on fire throughout, showing remarkable dedication even when seated in chairs at the edge of the stage for long periods of time.

"The Last Days" features dizzying, bountiful dialogue that is characteristic of Mr. Guirgis' plays, which meld street slang, rapturous poetry, rude comedy and literary references to Thomas Merton and W.H. Auden in a unique, thrilling way. Director John Vreeke is a master at restraining and astutely illuminating verbose plays, and this is perhaps his most satisfying effort, a production that probes the intellect, prickles the conscience and ignites the soul.

review by Jane Blanchard
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Washington Times

"I saw you in that play last week; you made me cry.”

That’s a line, a not particularly consequential bit of dialogue from a sweetly melancholy story told by an otherwise quiet character late in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and I mention it only because I can’t think of a better response to the Forum Theatre’s dazzling production. So I offer it up, amended a bit, to John Vreeke’s superb ensemble: I saw you in that thrillingly written, urgently performed, crassly funny, somehow heartbreaking play last week, and damn if you didn’t actually make a critic cry.

 If you, reader, must know more before you buy your tickets, know that they’re right, those people who describe Judas as a meditation on the eternal tension between divine mercy and human free will. But don’t let that put you off: It’s a smart, funny, passionate meditation on what it takes to forgive—whether you’re human or divine—and how it can sting to be forgiven, whether you’re one of the faithful or an anxious doubter or a confirmed agnostic.

And it’s a lively, cynical contemporary comedy, too, a Boston Legal episode set in purgatory, an unrepentant entertainment and an outrageous bit of seminary-disputation showoffery at the same time. It’s a circus, a show trial presided over by a Southern-fried cracker of a judge, with everybody from Mother Teresa to Mary Magdalene, from Sigmund Freud to the Father of Lies himself called as witnesses for the defense.

And oh, Lord, the writing: Lurid and loopy, elegant and coarse, angrily angular and achingly lyrical by turns, it’s intoxicating, infuriating, electrifying—poetry and profanity at once in the mouths of saints and sinners both. Why are you still sitting there? Go, for Jesus’ sake!

Or if not for his, then for the sake of Patrick Bussink, who plays him with a moving, mournful intensity. And for Jason McCool, whose oft-catatonic Judas inspires sympathy and impatience in equal measures, and whose discipline during those long silent stretches is downright astonishing. For Jesse Terrill’s Freud, all sniff and dignity, and Veronica del Cerro’s Saint Monica, all snap and attitude until a sudden, eye-widening shift into something like street-corner grandeur.

Go for Julie Garner’s all-but-broken defense attorney, for Scott McCormick’s cheerfully smarmy prosecutor; go for Brian Hemmingsen’s bellowing dead Confederate of a judge (trapped in purgatory since he hanged himself on the day of Lee’s surrender) and for his simmering, righteous Caiaphas, called to account for suborning Judas’ treason and for sending Jesus off to crucifixion.

Go for Frank Britton’s eye-opening Pilate, a hard case with something unmistakably honorable at his core, and for Maggie Glauber’s mildly peevish Mother Teresa, quoting Thomas Merton on what turns out to be the crucial subject of despair. Go for St. Thomas, for the hapless bailiff, for the exquisite lighting and the insinuating sound. And go—go on, go now—for the fabulously seductive Satan of Jim Jorgensen, who’s at his smartest and subtlest in that slick white suit, and for the quiet, unassuming depth in Frank B. Moorman’s juror.

He’s the otherwise unimportant character I mentioned at the outset, the guy telling the story that seems like nothing and turns out to be all about the oft-unconsidered cost of betrayal—the excruciating pain of the betrayer who knows himself, who sees how far he’s fallen, and who despises himself too much to reach for the hand offered in forgiveness. Despair, tied up with pride, before and after the fall—it’s at the intensely human heart of Guirgis’ divine comedy, and you needn’t count yourself among the faithful to be rocked by the scope of the tragedy the playwright immures his Judas inescapably in: If you’ve ever lived to regret disappointing someone, you’ll know it chapter and verse.

Review by Trey Graham

   2008: THE YEAR IN REVIEW...

The recession has hit the local theater scene hard.  But expect a resurgence --or at least lots of revivals.

It seems right, somehow, that the most dazzling play of the year was about a titanic battle with despair—and that The Last Days of Judas Iscariot has just wrapped up a revival over at the H Street Playhouse.....

Excerpt from the year-end article included:
The Good News:  .....As to art: It was, in the end, a solid year. Take a good look at the sidebar—we liked a hell of a lot more shows than we didn’t, and we loved a happy few, Forum’s electrifying Judas.....

  • Reviewed by Tim Treanor

I’ve taken more time than I usually do to write this review because I wanted to be sure you understood how good this play is. I wanted to tell you in plain and direct language the nature of the thing that you have before you.

It’s not that it’s simply good theater, with a tight dramatic arc and developments which are both outrageously funny and absolutely credible within the parameters of the story…although it is all of that. Nor is it simply that some of our best actors - Hemmingsen, McCormick, del Cerro, Jorgensen - do some of their best work ever, although they do. It is that The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a moral act, which can bring grace to the stricken heart. It will both entertain you and make you think. It could save your life.

Guirgis is best known for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a well-regarded prison drama in which a serial killer claims to have received the forgiveness of Jesus. Last Days is a hundred times better - a deeper, more focused, more mature examination of sin and forgiveness.

Judas (Jason McCool) is adrift and catatonic in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Responding to the pleas of his mother (Margery Berringer), Saint Monica (Veronica del Cerro) agitates for a writ of habeas corpus, which God eventually issues. (Guirgis’ amusing conceit is that the ethereal Monica, a woman who prayed daily that her son, St. Augustine, be delivered up from sin was in fact a professional nag, with the vocabulary of a hip-hop longshoreman). Judas, locked in for nearly two thousand years, is about to have his trial.

He is represented by a tough, modern professional woman, Fabriana Aziza Cunningham (Julie Garner), the daughter of a gypsy and a priest. The buffoonish, deadly Yusef El-Fayoumy (Scott McCormick) is the prosecutor. Presiding: the furious Judge Frank Littlefield (Brian Hemmingsen), who in life was a Confederate general who hanged himself on the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Courtroom drama is a wonderful way to highlight ideas in opposition - think Inherit the Wind, The Andersonville Trial, or the marvelous Disputation which Theater J did a few years back. Here, the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, for Cunningham manages to put the very concept of personal responsibility on trial. She calls on Sigmund Freud (Jesse Terrill) to argue that Judas’ suicide shows that he was no more in control of his behavior than is a man with a cold who sneezes . (In his bombastic cross-examination, El-Fayoumy hammers Freud for his cocaine use, calls him “Dr. Fried,” and then says, “Oh, I made a you-slip!”) Cunningham also seeks to forgive Judas’ act by grounding it in high purpose. She calls on an apostle, Simon the Zealot (Cesar A. Guadamuz, also very fine as a bailiff on work release from Hell), to show that Judas’ real intention was to put Jesus in a place where He would be compelled to use His messianic powers, thus bringing about the liberation of Israel from Rome.

But the real sin of Judas was not his betrayal of Christ. Instead, as Mother Teresa (an excellent Maggie Glauber) points out, it was despair. To Mother Teresa, quoting Thomas Merton, despair is a supreme act of ego, in which the sinner takes pride in a sin so great that no one in the universe can forgive it. Nathaniel Hawthorne plowed this same territory nearly two centuries ago in Ethan Brand, in which the protagonist, after a search for the unforgivable sin, discovered that it was…to seek out an unforgivable sin. Judas ended his life, Mother Teresa argues, rather than beg for forgiveness.

Santa MonicaThe high point of this trial (or of any trial, I would imagine) is the testimony of Satan (Jim Jorgensen). Called by the prosecution to show that Judas committed his betrayal without any suasion from the Prince of Darkness, Jorgensen’s Lucifer is a bad-ass Disco King, loaded up with an Obama-full of charisma. He jokes with audience members; he admires the prosecutor’s suit and defense counsel’s legs; he glides through the courtroom as if it was a dance hall. He radiates evil’s most compelling aspects: its certainty in itself; its unconditionality; its unrelenting purity. Jorgensen as Satan is magically and magnetically evil, with all the wondrous attractiveness evil implies. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him at least since The Autumn Garden at American Century two years ago.

But he is matched by Hemmingsen, who is marvelous as the Judge and even better as Caiaphas the Elder, bearing on his shoulders two millennia of Christian censure (he also does fine work in a cameo as St. Matthew); by McCormick, who brings his unique combination of tomfoolery and menace to the role of the prosecutor; by Garner, an actor we should see more often, who shows us the vulnerability wrenched out of her character’s steely shell; and by del Cerro as the foulmouthed saint. Patrick Bussink makes a brief appearance as Jesus, so full of life that he will remind you of what one commentator said - that had He not called Lazarus by name, they would have all come out of the grave. More than this: the production shows two young actors establishing their credentials beyond serious question. Frank Britton plays Pontius Pilate as though he was a battle-hardened drill sergeant in his courtroom battle with Cunningham, and then drenches her with an icy dignity, mined from some hard place. Britton is rapidly becoming a premier selection as a character actor in the Washington area. Jason McCool mostly sits in his infernal circle, frozen in pain and bewilderment, but when he is called upon to bring Judas Iscariot to life, he will break your heart. It is leagues ahead of anything I have seen McCool do in the past.

It should not astonish you to discover that John Vreeke directs this production. Whenever a play delivers a powerful emotional message - be it The K of D at Woolly Mammoth, or Bal Masque at Theater J - we seem to find Vreeke’s hand at the helm. He has done his customary excellent work here.

I cannot leave this review without mentioning the character the play is about. It is not about Judas Iscariot, who has been dead for nearly two thousand years, or about any of the grand and outlandish characters I have hitherto described. It is, instead, about the relentlessly normal Butch Honeywell (Frank B. Moorman, perfect in the part), a cow-town college teacher who, thirty or so years previous committed the unforgivable sin, and who, like Judas, and like the rest of us sinners, seeks the grace to forgive himself.

Modern Western theater has its roots in Church pageantry, which sought to bring living witness to the presence of grace. Six hundred years later, with this beautiful production of a play where Saints curse and Satan testifies to the love of God, we may have gotten it right.

Reviewed by Tim Treanor

Daring 'Judas Iscariot'...

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; Page C05

Psst -- there's a fabulous new show in town. But the location's a secret...

At least it feels like a secret, because audiences have been slow to accumulate in the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington. But the funky, comfortable space has become one of the city's best venues for serious theater.

That standing, unappreciated though it is, is being enhanced by Forum Theatre's exhilarating production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," a preposterously entertaining play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It's a literate cartoon, transforming familiar biblical figures into modern street-corner caricatures -- hustlers and gangbangers, yo. The bluster is profane and hugely funny, which doesn't for an instant diminish the genuine passion with which Guirgis pursues his central question.

To wit: Is the Ninth Circle of Hell truly the right place for Judas Iscariot? Can we get a witness or two, and cross-examine the roles played by Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the Elder, even Jesus himself?

This irreverent premise, plus its length (nearly three hours) and the need for a large cast comfortable swearing like school dropouts, helps explain why the play has been passed over by the more resource-rich troupes in town. That's fine with Forum, where "Last Days" has landed perfectly. Director John Vreeke has cast it with 15 actors who are coolly navigating Guirgis's demanding mix of high-minded monologues and raw comic banter.

The setting is a purgatorial court presided over by a bellowing Southern judge (Americanization is everywhere, goes one of the rapid-fire punch lines). Designer Colin K. Bills's void of a set features the dark brick walls of the theater and, for a familiar touch of bureaucratic hell, cold fluorescent lighting. The actors sit like witnesses and jury members on the sides of the stage, where those with multiple roles change into Pei Lee's neutrally shaded costumes. Visually, the show is a deliberate gray area.

Except, that is, for Satan, who enters in a blazing white suit. This commanding hipster is a bit of a cliche, perhaps, but Jim Jorgensen plays it with the kind of relaxed flair that reminds you why "devilish" is one of our most attractive adjectives. Jorgensen's Beelzebub is awfully damned likable, and even proves to be a fine listener when he meets Jason McCool's brooding Judas in a bar.

Even if the Devil's breezy style is familiar, the substance might surprise. Guirgis, author of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street," keeps spinning things as he looks for new evidence about what was really in Judas's heart, and why the case is even being brought at this time. If the Middle Eastern prosecutor is a bumbling, unctuous fool (played with oily vanity and verbal dexterity by Scott McCormick), the crusading role played by Julie Garner's no-nonsense defense attorney keeps a very human face on what is often a dazzlingly campy theological rant about God's mercy and man's free will.

The performance is a series of high-wire acts, with nearly everyone mastering vast tracts of language while keeping a steady balance between the sacred and the profane. Worth noting: Brian Hemmingsen's bluster as the judge and his lofty indignity as Caiaphas the Elder, Frank Britton's bristling gangsta turn as Pilate, Patrick Bussink's persistent Jesus, and Cesar A. Guadamuz's comic touches as the bailiff and as the character witness Simon the Zealot.

Most impressive is how Vreeke's actors fall into the spirit of an exercise that cheekily summons Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa to the stand (Maggie Glauber's contentious Mother Teresa is a particular delight) while keeping troubling questions fully in view. The ensemble is nearly flawless, treating this flamboyant but purposeful show like an answered prayer.

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; Page C05

For 'Judas' Actors, a Rewarding Trial
Forum Theatre Cast Gets a Workout In A Contemporary Telling of Faith and Betrayal

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; Page C05

If ever a contemporary play gave a bunch of actors a chance to have at it, it is "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," presented by Forum Theatre at H Street Playhouse through Sunday.

Stephen Adly Guirgis's 2004 play imagines the betrayer of Jesus on trial in purgatory before a modern, urban-sounding, religiously conflicted set of souls. Many of the actors double and triple up on roles.

"I had great actors who really, really worked their tails off," director John Vreeke says. Guirgis ("Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," "Our Lady of 121st Street") "is a meticulous writer and what I kept saying to the cast was 'learn the score.' It's like a musician who learns a complex piece of Mozart or Bach. . . . I didn't direct this play -- I conducted it. These long speeches are like arias. And you've got to know where the dynamics are," Vreeke says.

Actor Brian Hemmingsen says he is "not religious, but I am fascinated by all these things," the questions of faith and forgiveness raised in the piece. He plays the blustery trial judge, who was a Confederate suicide in the Civil War; Saint Matthew; and Caiaphas the Elder, the Jewish high priest who turned Jesus over to the Romans.

"You couldn't ask for a nicer piece of meat as an actor," says Hemmingsen of Caiaphas's mournful, defiant turn on the witness stand. "It allows so much to be withheld and let out at the same time. It's a whooph! It's just a nice piece of meat." He adds, "I would run this show for a good six months to a year if we could."

If Caiaphas is meaty, Satan is juicy. Jim Jorgensen plays him in a fly white suit and a touch of under-eye liner. "They almost get the kind of Satan that they need," says the actor of how his fallen angel interacts with the others. Guirgis's Satan is a drinking pal to Judas (Jason McCool), who, in the play's conceit, suffers the tortures of Hell because he can't forgive himself. To Judas's hard-edged defense attorney, Cunningham (Julie Garner), the Devil is ruthlessly honest.

"In Cunningham's scene with Satan, she is unable to open her heart to God. She gives up," Garner says of her driven defense attorney, haunted by a checkered past. "She's fighting Judas's case, but she's fighting tooth and nail for herself as well, because if she can get Judas off the hook, then she can be off the hook." What Satan confronts her with "is all truth. Truth that she knows but has been unable to really come to terms with."

Scott McCormick plays the oily prosecutor El-Fayoumy, a comical flatterer. His performance has "a little bit of Bud Abbott in there, some Peter Ustinov floating around," he says. But between his droll outbursts, the character has "these sweet, sweet moments where he makes these absolutely profound points about faith and belief," says the actor, a Rorschach Theatre company member. "There are so few parts like this for guys like me. I play the character roles and I play the villains, but this is something special," he adds.

The play ends not with a climactic verdict but with a quiet postscript by a jury member -- a modern-day man making a poignant confession. And that, says Vreeke, turns out to be the point. "Two and a half hours of intense discussion boils down to a 55-year-old man who has the need to tell somebody that he cheated on his wife and he hasn't felt good about himself since."

"It's almost like a card trick," Jorgensen observes, with the playwright presenting a history lesson, putting Judas on trial, when "it's really about forgiving yourself."

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; Page C05

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Reviewed April 12, 2008 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for intellectually challenging, highly entertaining theater

Sometimes an evening of theater presents such a collection of riches that the challenge for the audience is to take it all in at one sitting. This is such a time, with a concept that is at once intriguing and daunting, a script that is literate, intellectual, comic and dramatic all at the same time, and performances that bring out the strengths of the piece in such a way that it is hard to pick out a favorite piece of the puzzle - at least until Jim Jorgenson strides into view as the devil. It starts with its question - an intellectual quandary of (pardon the expression) biblical proportions: does Judas Iscariot belong in the lowest level of hell for all of eternity? Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' approach to the question is to put not Judas but his fate on trial in a courtroom where witnesses can be called to testify - witnesses ranging from Jesus himself and others from his time (Judas' mother, colleagues Simon, Peter, Thomas, participants Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the Elder) and assumed experts on relevant issues: Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and the aforementioned devil. Add a pair of contesting attorneys, a sometimes haughty and sometimes exasperated judge, and a nervous bailiff, and you have an evening that captures, challenges and stretches your brain.

Storyline: The trial of Judas Iscariot tests the question: if God is a forgiving God, can the unforgivable really remain unforgiven throughout all time? 

John Vreeke seems at his best when directing plays with strong intellectual questions at their core. He did Death and the King's HorsemanLady Chatterley's Lover and Tiny Alice at the Washington Shakespeare Company, Homebody/Kabul, Born Guilty, and The Tattooed Girl at Theater J, For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again and One Good Marriage at MetroStage. Clearly, he's no stranger to intellectual theater. He's no stranger to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis either. He directed his Our Lady of 121st Street at Woolly Mammoth. In that play, audiences got to know the unique talent of Guirgis, who voices timeless topics in the vernacular of today. With this script, he adds a demonstration of an ability to give a wide range of characters unique voices - Mother Teresa sounds nothing like Mother Iscariot and Sigmund Freud sounds nothing like Pontius Pilate. Each voices a unique view in a unique vocal pattern.

Since the structure of the play is a trial, there are moments for each member of the large cast to shine. They are either called to testify, or in the case of the attorneys, they pose the questions. There's Margery Berringer who starts the proceedings with a wrenching portrayal of the torment of a mother who discovers her son has betrayed God. There's Frank Britton as an un-contrite Pontius Pilate and Cesar A. Guadamuz who emerges from the nearly nebbish role of the bailiff sucking on a popsicle to take the stand as Simon the Zealot. Brian Hemmingsen turns in a fine performance as the judge over it all, but really shines when he switches characters to become Caiaphas the Elder ("no," he informs the court, "there is no Caiaphas the Younger") who defends his own actions in turning Jesus over to Pontius Pilate as a moral act, but views Judas' as the ultimate unforgivable transgression. Then there are a pair of fine bookend performances by Scott McCormick and Julie Garner as the prosecuting and defending attorneys battling wits with wit, flares of temper and oozing contempt for each other. Finally, there is the ever present Judas himself, the tormented Jason McCool, who never lets the audience forget that the other characters are discussing the fate of a real person, not an intellectual abstraction. The large playing space in the black box of the H Street Playhouse is left unadorned with the exception of a raised dais for Hemmingsen's judge, a plain witness dock and a circular platform on which Judas himself is on the spot. Harsh florescent lights heighten the stark feeling and no costume adds any color to the light grey and darker grey that permeates the scene. Even Jorgensen's flashy fashions as Satan are stark whites and blacks. Only flesh tones on the faces - frequently florid with emotion - bring any color to the scene. The result isn't colorless, however. Guirgis' words have a broad enough spectrum for any play.

Review by Brad Hathaway

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

April 12 - May 4, 2008
December 5 - 21, 2008
Played to Sold Out Performances

In residence at
H Street Playhouse
1365 H Street, NE
Washington DC  20002