Drama Club: Hey, Judas!
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Drama Club: Hey, Judas!

Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.

Ted Dykstra plays judge to Christianity’s favourite turncoat. Photo provided by Birdland Theatre.

The last time Birdland Theatre’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot came through town, it won five Doras and the reputation of being “the best show nobody saw.” With only five performances at The Distillery District’s enticingly named Fermenting Cellar, there wasn’t much of a chance to. This time around, they doubled the number of performances, but sadly, this still doesn’t mean a very long run, and if you didn’t make the trip to Mill Street and Parliament last night, you missed your last chance at catching this fabulous show.
After the fold, our late review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, plus more theatre news and reviews.

Bigger Than Jesus Christ: Superstar

Diego Matamoros gets positively wicked as Satan. Photo provided by Birdland Theatre.

With a three-hour running time, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot earns the description of “epic.” In fact, everything about this show is larger than life, from its story of a courtroom trial for Christianity’s favourite turncoat, to its cast of characters that includes everyone from Mary Magdalene to Sigmund Freud, to its fifteen actors, including such luminaries as Philip Akin, Ted Dykstra, Richard Greenblatt, Diego Matamoros, Morris Panych, and Louise Pitre.
Fabiana Aziza Cunningham is a tough cookie lawyer with a serious chip on her shoulder, who decides to appeal the decision to leave Judas Iscariot in ever-lasting Hell. After all, she argues, if God is all-forgiving, why can’t Judas be forgiven? Since she happens to be dead, she takes her appeal to a court in Purgatory, which is apparently a lot like a bad neighbourhood in New York. Calling witnesses that include Mother Theresa, Pontias Pilate, and Satan himself to the stand, Cunningham pleads her case, opposed by rival lawman El-Fayoumy (a deliciously sleazy Morris Panych). Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script is an absolute wonder. As outlandish as it is relatable, as high-minded as it is colloquial, as spiritual as it is skeptical, the play is fiendishly brilliant and fascinating to watch. Guirgis takes the premise of Judas Iscariot’s trial, and turns it into a metaphor for post-911 America that is at once specific and universal. Impossible-to-relate to Biblical/historical figures become recognizable modern types: Caiaphus the Elder is translated into a modern-day Hasidic rabbi; Pontias Pilate is an American miltary general; St. Monica is a tough-talking bitch who compares Judas to Tupac. Surely, this is the play Tony Kushner has been meaning to write since Angels in America.
Director David Ferry makes excellent use of the unusual venue, with actors wheeling bare-bones set pieces around the space to allow different members of the audience—effectively, the jurors—to see the action. And the cast itself is phenomenal. We expect the great performances we get from Diego Matamoros as a friendly, yet terrifying Satan, or Ted Dykstra as the high-strung judge and Caiaphas the Elder, or Richard Greenblatt as a petulant Sigmund Freud, or Philip Akin’s gruff Pontias Pilate. And it’s a delight to see rare performances from writer/director Panych, or Mamma Mia!‘s multi-talented Louise Pitre as Judas’ mom Henrietta Iscariot. But some of the most exciting performances come from the younger, less experienced members of the cast, like Zarrin Darnell-Martin who plays St. Monica, or Aviva Armour Ostroff, who plays the angel Gloria and Mother Theresa. We’ve been a fan of Aviva’s for a while, and this is the first thing we’ve seen her in where she’s been allowed to fully showcase her range, both dramatic and comedic.
All that said, it does drag a little in the second half. It’s hard to tell whether this is a result of Guirgis’ writing becoming less focused, or the company simply starting to get tired, or maybe both. But at the end of the day, this play leaves you with so many ideas, questions, laughs, and astonishing performances that this particular sin isn’t too hard to forgive. If only Judas had it so easy.

On Stage This Week

Another Home Invasion continues its run in Tarragon’s Extra Space. Joan MacLeod’s one-hander examines the life and routine of an elderly woman, played by the terrific Nicola Lipman. The script is funny, touching, and rings true, and Richard Rose’s direction makes for a very simple and elegant execution. Younger crowds may find this play less relatable than MacLeod’s earlier work, but if you’re willing to give it a listen, she really does have a beautiful little story to tell. It plays until April 19.
The Exchange Rate Collective and Volcano Theatre’s Appetite opens at Passe Muraille tomorrow night. The piece, created and performed by Claire Calnan, Adam Lazarus, and Linnea Swan, which combines dance and clowning, was a hit at the 2007 SummerWorks Festival. It plays until April 26.
Soulpepper’s top-notch production of Glengarry Glen Ross continues at the Young Centre. David Mamet’s expletive-filled play about a very angry (and very macho) group of real estate agents all competing to save their jobs is brought brilliantly to life through a combination of a cast that includes Eric Peterson, Peter Donaldson, Jordan Pettle, William Webster, and Albert Schultz, and Ken MacDonald’s elegant and fuctional set design. One of Soulpepper’s strongest shows in recent memory, the show continues until May 9.
Hardsell, the latest show from Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks, who created the award-winning Bigger Than Jesus, opens tonight at the Berkeley Street Theatre. This time, the team tackle commodification and mass media. Runs until May 9.
CanStage’s production of beloved one-woman show Shirley Valentine continues at the Bluma. This time, Nicola Cavendish plays the bored British housewife who lets her imagination run away from her on a vacation in Greece. (There is also a charming film version with Tom Conti and a cameo by Joanna Lumley.) It plays until April 18.
We weren’t exactly wild about the touring production of Broadway sensation Spring Awakening that recently checked into the Canon Theatre. Youthful enthusiasm and a couple of hummable tunes don’t quite make up for beyond-inane lyrics, uninspired staging, and a severely watered-down take on a classic play. But the kids sure seem to like it. It runs until April 19.