– These interviews were conducted before the attack on cast member Frank Britton on Monday night –
Jesus, Judas Iscariot and Mother Teresa walk into a bar . . . Actually, a courtroom, in Purgatory, where Judas is on trial to determine his eternal fate. Will he suffer everlasting damnation, or is there another option for history’s most infamous traitor? Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis imagines there is in his 2005 surrealist comic-drama The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which asks provocative questions like these: Are there limits to forgiveness? Is anyone beyond the reach of love? Is redemption possible, even for the worst of us?
Such questions may sound purely theological, but according to Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove – and delighted audiences – they have universal application. Under Dove’s leadership, Silver Spring-based Forum has reprised its 2007 hit production of Last Days (then performed at the H Street Playhouse) with about fifty percent of the original cast and John Vreeke returning to direct. The move is an unusual one for Forum, which decided some years back to focus on new works, but a return production of Last Days seemed the right choice for the young theatre’s 10th anniversary celebration.
“It was the obvious move, because it [Last Days] started us on the track where we are today and really established our aesthetic,” Dove says. “It’s the show people most often come up to me and talk about, regardless of whether or not they have any religious connection. It generates conversation.”
Sparking conversation is central to Forum’s mission. The company takes its name from the ancient Roman Forum, the public gathering place for news, discussion, and debate in that much older capital city. Company members choose plays based on merit and artistry, as well as their capacity to ignite discussion around contemporary issues in society, politics, culture, or religion. Few subjects today are as ripe or as divisive as the latter. Double that when the play centers on the actions of the man accused of betraying the Son of God. Is it getting too hot down there?
Jarrod Jabre thinks not. Theological advisor on this production of Last Days, Jabre says “[t]here’s really nothing in this play that would disturb audiences familiar with the biblical accounts. What it does is humanize these figures that are thought of as so remote, ethereal, and otherworldly.”
Guirgis’ cast of characters, which includes a dapper Satan, Pontius Pilate, Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene, and Sigmund Freud, among others, talk and act like the streetwise New Yorkers Guirgis lives and works among. There’s nary a plastic saint nor a simple villain among them, which makes the play more about relationships than theology per se, or stereotypes one might have of some of history’s most famous personages.
“It’s impossible to play a deity,” says Patrick Bussink, who is from a Christian background and is reprising the role of Jesus from the 2007 production. “You have to look at the character’s humanity. What makes him a real person?”
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Judas), who was not in the original production, thinks of the story in similarly relational terms. “Guirgis does a wonderful job of showing us the images we have of these characters, and then stripping that away and showing us the real people underneath, with their flaws, their mistakes, and their hopes,” he says.
Born in Iran and raised in a largely secular household, Ebrahimzadeh says religion didn’t much figure into his own examination of Judas. “I felt free from that, so that I could simply think about the personal relationship between Judas and Jesus. I could see [the whole play] in terms of relationships.”
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot elicited a very personal response from Artistic Director Michael Dove, in large part because of its religious content. “I felt a very personal connection the first time I read it,” he recalls, “thinking about my own upbringing from a spiritual standpoint and the questions I had about faith.” Raised in a conservative Christian environment, Dove says he was not encouraged to critically examine his beliefs, so that the questions Guirgis raises about divine justice, salvation, and damnation have particular resonance for him.
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“I was raised to see the world in a very black and white way, very set and pat in terms of how we should look at the world and at sin,” Dove reflects. “That comes through in the play, not just in terms of spirituality and religion, but in how you see everything.” He notes an increasing bifurcation and factionalism in American politics and society where, as in Guirgis’ play, people are often quick to judge and to divide the world into good and bad. While history has made Judas the ultimate villain and betrayer, Dove thinks Guirgis may well be using the conflicted soul as “a metaphor for all of us.”
“In some ways, [the play] is about everyone. All of the characters are failing, they all become surrogates for the audience,” Dove reflects. “’What things have I done that [like Judas] I regret? How can I see these things in others and forgive them?”
Director John Vreeke agrees that forgiveness is at the heart of the play. A self-described “church kid” who was groomed for the ministry but went into theatre instead, Vreeke believes Last Days presents the idea that “forgiveness . . . must come first from ourselves.” That’s a concept that resonates with Ebrahimzadeh in his work as Judas.
“It’s very much an inner struggle for him,” Ebrahimzadeh asserts. “It’s about Judas not being able to forgive himself, to accept that he is his own worst enemy, and that the only thing standing between him and his own salvation is himself.”
These sorts of moments are worth revisiting, as Forum is doing with the current production. Rather than simply “remounting” the original 2007 staging – a word Dove says the company has “banished” – the actors and creative team have approached this production as an opportunity to revisit a favorite, beloved theatrical experience in a different space before new audiences.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘How are we hearing this story differently now?’” Dove asks. “’What has changed about each of us in six years [since the last production]? And how does this play sound now, in our current political and social climate?’”
“I never thought it would happen again,” says veteran Washington actor Jim Jorgensen, who plays Satan. “It was a really special time. I’m flattered that someone would want to do it again and involve me in it.”
For his part, Patrick Bussink welcomes the opportunity to have another go at being Jesus. “He’s not the kind of character you play, and then think, ‘I nailed it,’” Bussink admits. “But I wouldn’t want to do this again unless it were going to be different, even if the words and intentions are the same.”
And what does it mean for Judas, facing the possibility of eternal flames for the very first time?
“Having a seven-year head start is definitely helpful,” Ebrahimzadeh acknowledges, in regard to the returning cast members. “But just about everybody has a new scene partner, and that in itself disrupts the old rhythms. It’s not the same performance. Everybody is approaching it like a fresh piece.”
Michael Dove believes the reprise of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is evidence of how far Forum has come in its first decade. “We know we as a company have evolved,” he asserts, “and so has our audience. This is another chance to engage them around a show that really represents who we are and what we do.”
No doubt, the conversation will be continued. . . .