Trial in Purgatory: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot balances dark exercises with smart comedy

Purgatory — the waiting-place where the dead await judgment — turns out to have plumbing, bodegas, and a courthouse. So explains a cheery Southern angel (Marie Stewart Harmon), a jury member in the high-profile trial of Judas (Phoenix editor Nick Schroeder), infamous betrayer of Jesus. Among key jurisprudential questions, in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, are who deserves forgiveness, and who has grounds to bestow it. Stacey Koloski directs a nervy, canny ensemble in a standout production for Mad Horse.

Purgatory’s courtroom is both institutional, with cheap office chairs, and mythic, with an eerie detritus of white gravel and gold relics. Up top Meg Anderson’s grey set, the smug, seedy, sexist Judge Littlefield (Burke Brimmer) presides. In a sunken recess below him, catatonic Judas languishes. And on the floor, the sycophantic, thinks-he’s-suave prosecutor, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Mark Rubin), and the much-abused defense counsel, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Janice Gardner), question witnesses from across the ages.

These witnesses provide lenses for considering Judas’s actions — theology, psychology, philosophy, politics — and in portraying Apostles, Romans, and more. Mad Horse’s large, diverse ensemble offers more delights than I have room to name. Mandela Gardner plays a sweet, wrenching young Matthias of Galilee in a beautiful scene with young Judas and a spinning top; Tootie Van Reenen is an absurdly perfect Mother Teresa. Khalil LeSaldo brings measured gravitas to the wary working-class fisherman Peter, and a contained rage to his harder-edged Simon the Zealot, with a breathtaking monologue describing what the horrors of Roman rule would look like in the streets of New York.

Erica Murphy’s Saint Monica is a hyperactive gangsta in cutoffs, her speech riddled with muthafuckas, yet brings it down to tender softness holding Judas. Tony Reilly kills it as a tweedy, blustery Sigmund Freud; Caleb Aaron Coulthard does a great sleazy Pontius Pilate in a mobster’s peacoat and dark shades; and who but Brent Askari to play Satan? He does so with his trademark crass, petulant swagger, and then with a quiet cruelty, showing how terrifyingly un-dramatic it is to destroy a soul.

As the two counsels parry, Rubin and Gardner, both superb, present exactingly wrought contrasts. Rubin’s fabulously antic El-Fayoumy, in his chest-baring purple shirt, is like a wind-up toy of flattery, boy’s-club rapport and libido. In a zip-up black dress with the zipper low, Gardner makes nuanced, finely calibrated work of Cunningham’s subtler maneuvering: Terse and taut, she starts cool, then raises the heat, striking to the heart of a witness’ weakness.

Guirgis’s script balances intellectual exercise with lower-brow, pointedly modern comedy. On the one hand, we hear Thomas Merton on despair, or how God’s love and justice are the thesis and antithesis that synthesize in mercy. On the other hand, there are hard-ons, Tupac, and the Incredible Hulk. Valence and mood shift constantly, and Koloski’s savvy direction modulates the swerves with energy and precision. When Satan quietly turns to the hearts of the lawyers themselves, their sudden wrecked silence is devastating. And Guirgis’s daring third-act monologue, by an everyman juror (Jody McColman) is pitched so carefully, so obliquely, that its force transcends its leap.

Meanwhile, Jesus (Jason LeSaldo) watches from the shadows with an open gaze, the picture of radical acceptance. And watching Schroeder’s catatonic man on trial is like looking into the bottom of a well — his anguish is distant but discernible. Mad Horse’s ambitious show is a challenging, entertaining, and disarming investigation into what might be at the heart of the world’s wrongs: Any person made to feel small, shamed, and unworthy of even their own forgiveness.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot | By Stephen Adly Guirgis; Directed by Stacey Koloski; Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through April 9 | $20-22 (Thu 3/30 pay-what-you-can) |

Last modified onWednesday, 29 March 2017 14:53