What if the greatest sinner in human history was put on trial?
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s capable adaptation of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” the Yale Dramatic Association’s spring mainstage production, studies the supreme betrayer through the lens of the law. But rather than finding a biblical monster, the audience uncovers a human being dealing with very human issues. What follows is not ultimately a look at Judas so much as a personal dive into the introspective — a stirring performance through which we all can examine our questions of faith.
The play follows attorney Fabiana Cunningham’s (Willa Fitzgerald ’13) attempts to appeal Judas Iscariot’s (Alex Kramer ’13) eternal damnation. A courtroom power struggle commences as witness after witness, from Henrietta Iscariot (Maia Collier ’11) to Sigmund Freud (Elias Kleinbock ’14), mounts the stand, taking turns either denouncing or supporting Christ’s traitor. But the road is not nearly as straightforward as its law-and-order premise would suggest.
This is an imperfect play about imperfect people — it hinges entirely on the strength of its performances, though at times its wild ambition nearly undoes the effort. The script forces Campbell-Holt to walk a fine line between comedy and spiritual crisis, and the result is not always positive. But the issue here, at least for the first half of the play, is not the acting, but the content.
Up through intermission, the production is entirely hit-or-miss. Not every quip is funny or even appropriate. At times, the play is downright blasphemous (see: “ghetto” Saint Monica, played by Stephanie Brandon ’13). Prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy’s (Michael Rosen ’14) obsession with Mother Teresa (Katherine Pitt ’12) is more unsettling than hilarious. Indeed, the play’s real saving grace through the halfway point is its smoky ambiance and wonderfully ominous set, which keeps the play’s portentous and troubled tone at the forefront, even when awkward dialogue dominates the stage.
But the play undergoes a radical shift following the break.
The characters no longer pretend to purport Judas’s guilt. Instead, as the final three witnesses give their testimony, “Last Days” moves into overtly thematic territory. Pontius Pilate (Leonard Thomas ’14) gives an impassioned speech that threatens to steal the show (“I live in heaven, girlfriend. Where you living?”) and Caiaphas’s (Matthew McCollum ’11) viciously cold outlook speaks to the darkest side of our logic. Both men make the same important point — everyone has a duty to themselves and to others, and sometimes we must make choices (ignorantly or purposely) that are neither right nor wrong.
These are powerful themes that raise questions particularly valid to Judas’s specific case — why did he betray Jesus? But when Satan (Michael Knowles ’12) retakes the stand and exposes the true nature of every member of the courtroom, he introduces an even more important concept: we are humans, just as flawed as Judas Iscariot. Even if God is all-loving, mankind is still eternally spiteful.
This final series of dramatic performances immediately corrects whatever bad taste the first half of the play leaves behind. Moreover, they push the story towards its harrowing conclusion, when jury member Butch Honeywell (Cory Finley ’11) speaks to Judas in a scene so breathlessly poignant it’s sure to pull at the emotions of even the wiliest disbeliever.
“Last Days” does not end with a bang — it fades slowly to black, putting out whatever preconceived ideas of faith we might have. As Honeywell’s final story suggests, we are all in some way related both to Judas and Jesus, and so we don’t have the right to judge one another. Neither do we have the ability to truly understand our fellow man, or the governing force above us all.
As the end of the play makes impressively clear, good and bad do not exist. There is only universal human emotion — the capacity to love and regret. Which one we choose is entirely up to us.