“Judith,” a play written by Howard Barker and directed by Ben Vershbow ’02, has all the elements that modern popular culture would demand of it: war, murder, sex, and the quandaries that accompany each. It has all that a religious tale would require as well, namely the rescue of the chosen people from heathens by an unexpected religious figure. This Biblical tale about the beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes by a Hebrew widow, though, is certainly not pop culture, nor is it a simple religious account; the war is offstage, the murderer is ambivalent, and the sex is disturbing. And so we end up with an original and haunting piece that combines a religious story with a more modern understanding and ends up with something very different from both.

The play follows the story from the Book of Judith in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, in which Judith, a beautiful Hebrew widow, slays the general Holofernes and saves her people from defeat by the Assyrians. Judith’s story has found its way into modern understanding through the art and writing of the Italian Renaissance, whose masters (Donatello, Caravaggio and Gentileschi particularly) considered Judith a symbol of civic virtue triumphant over tyranny and whose depictions were largely realistic and quite gruesome. Barker’s play shares this dark, grisly tone; his understanding of both figures, Judith and Holofernes, and of the ultimate meaning of the tale, though, is far more ambivalent.

Holofernes here is not quite the ruthless tyrant of the Biblical conception. Unlike the Biblical story, in which a drunken Holofernes attempts to seduce Judith before being killed, Barker’s general neither drinks nor, it seems, particularly wants to sleep with the Hebrew widow who comes to him as a prostitute. Indeed, as Judith herself emphasizes, he is not especially physically imposing; as he tells Judith, he was even bullied as a child. His main weapons as general are a subtle mind and graceful tongue, which he manifests throughout the play in his eloquent philosophizing about death and warfare — cruelty, he says, is “collaboration in chaos”; death is “the organization of metaphor.”

His claims about his childhood, though, are by no means a bit of cheap psychology of cruelty breeding cruelty — for they are meant to be understood within the context of one of the larger epiphanies of the play. People’s words, in war, love, and probably the rest of life, are usually lies, Barker points out. It is impossible to understand a person’s intentions by what he says or how he acts. Hence, of course, we have a much more complex character than what the Bible presents.

Barker’s understanding of Judith, too, is far more mixed than the Biblical and Renaissance symbol of female fortitude and virtue. She is ambivalent about killing the general and seems almost to have been herself seduced by his elegant speech, his philosophical angst, and his acknowledgment of human mendacity. She is at once affectionate toward and cruel to the serving woman who accompanies her. After the murder, she has tyrannical and hysterical fantasies about her status as savior of the Hebrews.

We cannot understand her in all her complexity only by what she says, just as we do not view her as some prime exemplar of courage and morality simply because she slays a general. People are not symbols here, either of tyranny or of integrity — and if Renaissance paintings make the understanding of mythical figures as symbols all too easy, the dramatic form, with all of its psychological and philosophical complexity, makes it impossible.

The acting in Vershbow’s show is magnificent. Holofernes (Derek Miller ’04) is at times eloquent and pensive, at times threatening, at times even pitiful. Miller pulls off the nuances of his character gracefully, so that Holofernes ends up as a consistent enigma. Adele Bruni ’02 as Judith is equally masterful and mysterious; she manages seamlessly to integrate a character who is at once a courageous servant of the Hebrew God, an uncertain widow who has cast herself as a prostitute, and a sort of hysterical and cruel conqueror.

Perhaps the role of Judith’s servant (Ginny Smith ’02) is meant to be smaller than the other two — she watches the interactions between Holofernes and Judith, and seems almost out of place. Yet, as Smith’s performance makes clear, she is somehow deeply integral to the play, and her character is perhaps the most haunting. The direction manages to incorporate the darkness of a Renaissance painting into a far more complex representation of the tale — the play blends Biblical scene, Renaissance understanding, and modern conceptions of psychology and philosophy into something that both popular culture and religious myth couldn’t hold a candle to.