Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At BPP: A Gospel you never read in Sunday School

Over the last decade Sacramento has grown from a sleepy state capital to a sophisticated center for the arts, including some top-notch theater, professional and otherwise. In our admiration for many of the leading companies, though, we can easily overlook a few smaller groups that, on modest stages, often come up with shows that rival the big timers.

One such overlooked jewel is “Beyond the Proscenium Productions,” housed next door to a similar gem, California Stage, both near the light-rail tracks a few blocks west of the Capital City Freeway. In its intimate quarters, BPP now offers a stunning production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” by Stephen Adley Guirgis, a playwright seemingly obsessed with transforming the Gospels into clever modern scenarios. Two of his other titles are “Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

In “Iscariot” we get the familiar Biblical characters, but they’ve been updated to contemporary Americans, both in attitude and language. We get a jive-talkin’ St. Monica (Joelle Wirth), mother of St. Augustine. And Henrietta Iscariot (Margaret Morneau) resembles someone we might run into in a Laundromat. The strategy not only makes the characters “relevant” but disarms those who might view the play as irreverent.

Giurgis also adopts what seems to be a kind of new genre: a trial in purgatory for celebrated sinners. The action pits Cunningham (Renee DeGarmo), an earnest and attractive young defense attorney and an agnostic with liberal tendencies, against the delightfully smarmy prosecutor, El-Fayoumy (Justin Munoz). And though we’re led to root for Cunningham, we discover that she too has feet of clay, as does just about everybody else we encounter, including even Jesus Himself (Kyle Gundlach).

What’s more, in Giurgis’ version Heaven seems kind of fuzzy and Hell turns out to be not such a bad place after all. You can even be promoted out of it—unless, of course, you’d prefer to stay. A wise-guy Satan (Barry Hubbard) seems an echo of Jack Nicholson and even bullies the domineering Judge Littlefield (Mark Hoffman), who had hanged himself during the Civil War.

Hoffman also doubles as a pedantic Caiaphus. Likewise P. Joshua Laskey magically swings from a pious St. Matthew to a poker-faced Sigmund Freud, complete with German accent. All belong to a strong cast of 17, solidly professional and with resumes that rival performers we see in more celebrated theaters.

But beneath the frivolous surface lies a disturbing question, a moral conundrum, based on a theological postulate that Jesus, in fact, recruited Judas (David Campfield) to betray Him. Left with a handful of silver and a profound sense of guilt, Judas hanged himself, only to face condemnation throughout eternity. Campfield plays Judas as an expressive yet near-brain-dead victim in a wheelchair, and there’s a surprising yet poignant meeting between him and Jesus late in the play.

Director Michael RJ Campbell skillfully compels our imagination on a spare stage, which he and DeGarmo designed. The mood is supported by Kyle Gundlach’s original soft music, played on an electric guitar.

The one major flaw in the play is a tacked on epilogue where a recently deceased juror, Butch Honeywell (Joshua Glenn Robertson), delivers a lengthy and anti-climactic confession of his marital infidelities. The point seems to be that our sins are all in our head, but then again, maybe not. Since the play runs more than three hours, we can do without this numbing addition.

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” runs through March 15 at The Wilkerson Theatre, 1723 25th Street. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general, $12 for seniors and students. Call (916) 456-1600 or e-mail contact@beyond-pro.org. For more information, click the title of this post.

For more information about Beyond the Proscenium Productions, click the title of this post.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your glowing review. Though I would like to further discuss with you your take on the final monologue... you deemed in unnecessary... I disagree. You have a person who has sat and watched the trial along with the audience, then gives his own take to a modern betrayal. It makes the point drive home even farther.

d-dawg said...

Thanks for the comment. To us the climax came with Jesus washing Judas' feet. The fact that Honeywell feels guilty about his habitual philandering seems anticlimactic. The playwright has already hammered home his point about the ambiguity of guilt.

Ann Tracy's said...

And after reading both comments here, I guess I'll just have to make up my own mind when I see the show this weekend... but thanks so much d-dawg for blogging about the theatre scene in Sacto... we need this!

d-dawg said...

Good idea, Ann. This is a rich and complex play--and very rewarding. We'd be very interested in your take on the play after you've seen it.