Be prepared for the trial of the century. And no matter what century you’re from you’ll be hanging onto every word in the fast-paced thrilling Silver Spring Stage production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The traitor of Jesus of Nazareth is put on trial at the writ of God, and if that weren’t enough it takes place in Hope, a courtroom in downtown Purgatory. And the witness list needs to be seen to be believed but expect some disciples, the mother of all saints, even the prince of darkness. An enthralling masterpiece, directed by Guillaume Tourniaire that will captivate your attention from the moment the show opens, with just one woman on stage, to the harrowing final image.
Director Guillaume Tourniaire, doubling as dialect coach and dramaturge, presents a creative vision clearly seen through his cast. He has fitted his actors to their roles with perfection, working with them to achieve flawless accents through a myriad of dialects; including two different southern accents, an Irish voice and one from the Caribbean Islands. Tourniaire draws an intense focus to the events at hand in his direction of his actors – well worked through their placement and use of the space and in their physicality throughout the performance. There are no muddled moments or questioned intents. He hits his mark with the overriding theme of ‘right vs. wrong’ in each testimony of the witnesses, the examinations of the lawyers, and even in the outbursts of the judge. A resplendent display of human nature at its finest.
The cast may be listed simply as “the company” in the playbill but make no mistake -they all have dynamic characters to portray. Many are double-cast, appearing more than once on the witness stand or in a story directed at the audience, and this tactic of multi-use in the actors adds an element of hilarity to the show in certain cases; one in particular being the Judge (Norm Gleichman) giving a riling speech to the bailiff (Wies Valen) as to why he cannot reside over the testimony of the Grand Rabbi (also played by Gleichman) and then he quickly exits the stage before the testimony begins. Another such brilliant double-cast occurs in the role of Gloria, the angel (Kecia Campbell) where she bubbles around the stage with spirited eyes and wide smiles, expressing her joy of being able to visit her children on earth, watching them from above. Later Campbell is seen as the holy Saint Mother Teresa, called to the witness stand for questioning. She lives the role of the frail old woman, playing up the hearing loss and debilitating arthritis with powerful conviction. Campbell leans her weight fully on her cane as Mother Teresa walks off-stage, giving us the feeling that she’s actually hindered without it. The parallel of casting an actor as both angel and Mother Teresa is not lost in Tourniaire’s decision to do so.
The laughs don’t stop when St. Monica (Karen Elle) arrives; the self-proclaimed saint of nagging, with an attitude so over-the-top that you expect her to start snapping her fingers in that well-recognized z-pattern. Her character delivers the line “I’m not someone who has a problem expressing myself” and Elle’s performance lives up to the standard given in that line. Her physicality is impressive as she shifts from the righteous “I-told-you-so” saint to the slightly more humbled Simon the Zealot. Outfitted in camouflage, Elle takes the witness stand and streamlines her performance to an alternation between fiery moments of revolutionary discussions and apathetic head nods all while maintaining an island accent.
There are other brilliant moments of character portrayal found amongst this ensemble, including Sigmund Freud’s (Cory Atwood) testimony of Judas’s insanity. Atwood presents the haughty airs of a psychologically learned man in his gestures with the cigar and his line-straight posture. The same can be said for the crippling posture of the Irish nun (Erika Imhoof) as she totters her way onto stage for a brief moment and then totters back off, spending more time getting on and off stage than she does delivering her actual line.
And while not King of the Jews, Brendan Murray (cast first as a member of the jury, then as a brief scene as the devil, and later as Pontius Pilate) is the king of the accents. Murray maintains a slight southern sound while presenting his jury member to the audience but falls deep into a distinctively different southern drawl when approaching the stand as Pontius Pilate. His role as Pilate is bewitching as he lays on the deep southern charm reminiscent of a sleazy squawking politician with an unmistakable air of aristocracy carried not only in his voice but in his physicality. Murray’s smug expressions combined with his staunch posture, never flailing even as he faces the excruciating pressure of the defense (Mattie Cohan), creates a phenomenal delivery of the role; even more so when the character explodes, physically jumping up from the stand, and begins to attack the questions in defense of his actions, shouting so loud that his face turns red and his throat begins to tremble. But faster than light Murray flips into a somber, guilt ridden man with many regrets, told slowly in a monologue directed at Judas (Scott Courlander) at the end of the show; showing us the versatility of his acting range.
But the real explosion occurs when Satan (Cara Duckworth) makes an appearance in Act II. While Duckworth oozes sexuality on her first entrance, leaning over the judge’s bench, slinking back to the witness’s chair; she’s a true ‘bat out of hell’ as she bursts onto the scene when summoned a second time. Hell hath never seen a fury like the performance given by Duckworth as she demands an explanation for stolen souls, spit-firing her lines into a coherent vocal crescendo while she paces about the courtroom like a dangerous caged animal. She quells both the prosecution (Jonathan Dyer) and the defense (Mattie Cohan) into their place with her venomous barbs delivered with such acerbity that you can almost see the lash marks her tongue leaves behind.
The show, however, isn’t all fun and explosions. There are harrowing moments that shake you to the core as you watch them unfold, from the brief parable of Peter (Jonathan Dyer) to Mother Iscariot’s (Natalie McManus) heartfelt pleas for her son in the opening of the show. A similarly profound moment occurs when the Grand Rabbi (Norm Gleichman) is called to testify. Gleichman portrays a stoic character; responding in monotone monosyllabic answers with a great tension building in his physicality as the questions grow in complexity until finally he too bursts forth in a moment of rash anger, defending his words of reason to his faith before shuffling quietly off stage.
But the burden of the show falls to its title character, Judas (Scott Courlander) who has very limited interaction with the rest of the cast. Courlander’s character is in a catatonic state for most of the show, sitting with a glossy unfocused look in his eye, trembling and twitching occasionally. He is fully committed to the role, never once lulling into a slump or falling asleep as actors prone to long periods of waiting may feel apt to do. And the moments where he does interact with the other members of the cast are inspiring. Courlander spins right out of his catatonic stupor and into the flashback as if nothing has happened; physically embodying the changes of Judas from his drunken angry encounter with the devil (played briefly at this point by Brendan Murray) to his touching moment as a young boy sharing toys with Mathias (Erica Smith). Only I would be remiss not to mention his encounter with Jesus. There’s a shocking directorial concept to be seen when Jesus is revealed, so poignant that I’m dying to speak of it, but won’t for fear of giving away the brilliant ending. The performance closes with a profound image that will leave you wondering if not aching in your heart for Judas.
Congratulations to the divine ensemble: Cory Atwood, Kecia Campbell, Mattie Cohan, Scott Courlander, Cara Duckworth, Jonathan Dyer, Norm Gleichman, Erika Imhoof, Karen Lawrence, Natalie McManus, Brendan Murray, Erica Smith, and Wies Valen.
Linda Bartash (Set Design), Nick Sampson (Sound Design), Jim Robertson (Light Design), Richard Ley (Props/Set Dressing), and Linda Swann (Costumes) all did fine work.
So come with convictions or an open mind. Either way you’re bound to be impressed with the Silver Spring Stage’s heavenly production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs through November 19, 2011 at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets call the box office (301) 593-6036, or purchase them online.
Watch a preview video of Judas Iscariot.