While “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” may be a too-hot cup of tea for the theologically fragile, it’s a delicious post-Easter dessert for everyone else.
First staged off-Broadway in 2005 and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Adley Giurgis’ dark comedy-drama employs flashbacks to an imaginary childhood, plus lawyers who call for the testimonies from witnesses such as Mother Teresa, Caiphas, St. Monica and Satan.
The controversial, culturally mixed production doesn’t poke fun at Christianity but calls into question beliefs and what it means to have faith. It carries a strong religious message about forgiveness.
“When you do this through comedy, you can broaden people’s perspectives,” said co-producer Scott Gremillion, who is co-founder of the Lauren-Reilly Eliot Company.
The setting is a courtroom, a more modern version of purgatory than the usual indescribable state.
“It’s open to interpretation,” Gremillion said. “If you ask me, the characters are the internal voices going through Judas’ head.”
Gremillion also plays Elfayuome, the prosecuting attorney and quintessential lawyer, who tries to send Judas to hell while simultaneously hitting on the defense and buttering up the judge.
The characters are part of the American cultural narrative, which makes them engaging.
“It’s not at all an attention-getting device,” director Cooper Helm explained. “I try to choose plays that have credentials, and most are Pulitzers or Tonys.”
Helm saw the play performed by Theatre Baton Rouge, was duly impressed and thought Lafayette deserved to see it. “Is it clear where Judas ends up? Well, this is the trial in purgatory,” Helm said.
“Once Cooper and I read the play, we knew we had to do it. It’s a stretch for the company, but we don’t like easy productions,” Gremillion said.
Purgatory’s a rough neighborhood, and while there is no blasphemy, audiences should be advised the language is adult. St. Monica (Angela Thomas) is street-direct in her diatribes, but the genuine swearing is justifiably reserved for Satan, played by white-haired, bespectacled Joe Riehl.
“The cast gives me a hard time,” Riehl laughed. “Satan’s real mean.”
Casting for the ensemble piece is superb, and Cortland Melton is Jesus, the one character who’s played straight. The 16-year-old Breaux Bridge High gifted and talented student has an innocent masculine beauty and undeniable presence.
“I heard this was an excellent company to work with,” Melton said. “I started to cold read and got the part fairly.”
Gremillion said it took a long time to find Jesus, no pun intended. “We searched actors and friends — we hadn’t intended to choose young, but he has such a beautiful deep voice. He was a natural fit; it made perfect sense.”
Although he looks more like a stereotypical Jesus, University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior Andre Trahan is Judas.
“Judas loved Jesus; he was one of his best friends,” Trahan said.“There’s not a lot of information about why he did what he did, and this play addresses the why. He’s the biggest villain in history — what was it, and why did he do it? The idea of eternal punishment, it’s a little spooky.”
Be forewarned, the play is laugh-out-loud funny but not all tears will be those of laughter. Iscariot is spiritually deep, profound, and the monologue by Judas’ mother will move you. “It’s a very chaotic play,” Helm said. “The Jesus and Judas scene at the last is beautiful.”