Toronto’s Birdland Theatre is re-mounting their much-acclaimed 2005 production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in the Fermenting Cellar, located in the heart of the Distillery District. The Stephen Adly Guirgis play is a sprawling, wordy affair, populated by both real and mythological figures.
Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, Pontius Pilate, and Satan all make appearances in the courtroom setting Guirgis has set up as the play’s basic construct. Is Judas guilty of the greatest betrayal in human experience? Should he suffer eternal damnation? Or is he allowed to experience the unconditional forgiveness the ministry of Jesus Christ represented?
It’s challenging theatre, to be sure, with Guirgis’ predilection for philosophical flights of fancy and long-winded backstories, but there’s something eerily prescient about its timing, too. Back in 2005, the play was an obvious indictment of Bush-era policies and measures; now, with the pain of the financial mess -and itinerant anger toward the corporate corruption that contributed to it -the work asks its audience how much we’re willing to forgive, both of ourselves and others. How long do we hang on to old enmities and grievances? Should we?
Questions around justification of choices and motivations abound, and director David Ferry keeps things moving along nicely, with the whole cast onstage, moving around sets and sitting as courtroom jury and observers. This makes the audience complicit in Judas’ fate as well, giving the work a slight meta-theatre feeling (though not of the gauche variety, whew). Gorgeous lighting -sometimes with flashlights -and a gorgeous diorama between the acts give the piece a wonderful industrial-meets-impressionist look.
And the performances are magnificent too. Ferry has cast some of Canada’s top actors in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. As Pilate, Obsidian Theatre Artistic Director Philip Akin channels the spirit of General Petraeus (Roman quality and all), combining military harshness with liberal slabs of charm and male bravado. In the dual roles of Judge Littlefield and Caiaphas the Elder, Ted Dykstra is manic, moving, and magnetic; his exchange (As Caiaphas) with defence lawyer Fabiana Cunningham (Janet Porter) is one of the best theatrical moments I’ve experienced all year. In the title role of Judas, Shaun Smythe is heartbreaking; he plays the betraying apostle as a man with a good core but torn by the screams and howls of a needy ego. His acute sense of abandonment by Jesus (Jamie Robinson) is most keenly sensed in their heated, emotional exchange, and for those versed in scripture, echoes of “Oh my Lord, why have you abandoned me?” will ring loud (particularly this weekend, natch).
If you like your theatre challenging, chalk-full of ideas, people, concepts, and well, loads of talking (in other words, if you’re a Shaw fan) get down to the Fermenting Cellar. Bonus? It’s very near to a number of great wine bars, and perhaps the best cup of hot chocolate in the city. Nothing like cocoa, fermented grapes, and talk of purgatory to complete a weekend.