Eternally Thrilling: Estelle Parsons Directs The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Actors Studio

What this incarnation of Judas does so well is to combine burlesque aspects with genuine emotion.
01/20/2016 10:08 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

It's only natural that the battle for a man's soul feels dangerous, especially when that man betrayed Jesus. There has been a crackling element of menace throughout the rehearsals for Estelle Parsons' production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, to the point that the Oscar winner/theatre icon tells me, "We stopped [one exercise] when it was clear that it was going to result in violence."

Such things aren't uncommon at the Actors Studio, where Judas is the third play in Parsons' "Theater and Social Justice" series, which examines works that address such large cultural themes as race, poverty, and religion. But unlike the program's previous minimalist productions -- Leland Gantt's solo show Rhapsody in Black and the three-character Mud by Maria Irene Fornés -- Judas is a grand spectacle, featuring a cast of twenty-seven and a nearly three-hour running time. Thanks to the actors' intense vivacity (which includes that air of conflict) and Parsons' electrifying direction, the show absolutely flies. Danger can be a good thing.

Guirgis' provocative play centers on the trial of a now-comatose Judas Iscariot (Gabriel Furman). In Purgatory, fiery defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Suzanne DiDonna) faces off against sycophantic prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy (Dan Grimaldi) to appeal her client's eternal damnation. While colorful witnesses like Mother Teresa (Bob Adrian), Sigmund Freud (Timothy Doyle), and Satan (Javier Molina) take the stand, Biblical figures pop up in standalone scenes to share their memories of Jesus. Ultimately the biggest questions are left for the audience's consideration: What is faith? What is friendship? What do you believe?

Estelle loves how Guirgis' writing allows every character, even those who appear only briefly, to create impactful moments onstage. "In the original they were all doubling [the parts]," she notes. "But I thought, 'This is such a wonderful opportunity to do a great big play that nobody else can do, because if there's one thing we have at the Studio it's all these actors!'"

Judas is also one of the most diverse projects to emerge from the Studio in recent years, featuring not only a multicultural cast but adding some Spanish dialogue as well for Saint Peter (Jose Ignacio Gomez) and Matthias of Galilee (Victor Almanzar).

The Studio hasn't been a diverse place historically, but these are really impressive actors. I said to them all, "Okay, we're the sexiest, most attractive things you've got." And it's worked. I hope their [energy] will encourage the audience to be interactive.

Indeed, Parsons' version is so enthralling it's almost immersive. While the original Off-Broadway staging of Judas in 2005 -- directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starring Eric Bogosian and Sam Rockwell among others -- had critics divided over its unwieldiness and baffled by odd uses of space, Estelle focused on making every choice significant.

I wasn't sure how to do it initially. We'd been working on little scenes for a year or more, and usually when I'm going to direct something I have a visual sense of it right away. But on this one I said to [set designer] Peter Larkin, "I know what it should be but I can't figure out how." And he said, "It's just like a burlesque show."

What this incarnation of Judas does so well is to combine burlesque aspects with genuine emotion. Lights come up on an empty performance area and gentle music is heard that sounds like rain. (All music and sound effects in the play are courtesy of Estelle's longtime collaborator, Yukio Tsuji, who improvised his melodies according to the spirit of each rehearsal.) Suddenly Judas' mother (JoAnna Rhinehart) enters, explaining the wretched conditions of her son's death in an impassioned monologue. Rhinehart's brilliant delivery, plus real tears, alerts the crowd that they're about to watch something very special. And once she disappears, the antics ensue. Angel Gloria (Richarda Abrams) welcomes everyone to Hope, "located in downtown Purgatory... [where] litigation is the order of the day." Immediately the entire cast caravan in and construct the set, advising people in the front row to "watch their knees" as they slap together the attorneys' tables. Within moments they've transformed the black box theatre into a courtroom, and the audience is the gallery, strapped in for wild proceedings.

Parsons has her troupe make the most of Guirgis' ridiculous situations -- El-Fayoumy ogling Judas' mother, Saints Peter and Matthew (Lash Dooley) griping about their dislike for each other, Mother Teresa invoking an Irish nun (Myla Pitt) who repeats the same lines over and over -- with such righteous anger that every action is riveting. Each character moves in a distinctive way, and tensions are highest when actors prove their mastery of listening and responding. (I remember being truly haunted at one rehearsal when Gabe Fazio, testifying as Simon the Zealot, became so consumed by his character that he snapped at DiDonna, "I don't have to be here! Now repeat your question.")

The three leads keep the "power" juggling between them as each commands an exaggerated presence. DiDonna plays up Cunningham's sexpot gypsy aspects, clad in tight black boots and bangles, while Grimaldi sputters through El-Fayoumy's speeches with long-winded hilarious pageantry and Tom Brangle indulges in some entertaining ham as the blustery, buffoonish judge. Their one-liners hit fast (Cunningham: "I live in Purgatory." Judge: "Well, you shoulda kept your legs closed."), but their performances stay with you.

Because Judas is such a circus, it's fascinating to see who else nabs the most attention. Delissa Reynolds stands out as Heaven's self-appointed "nag" Saint Monica, whose motormouthed speeches bring the essence of God directly to the homies. Almanzar delights as the boyish Matthias of Galilee, so sweetly obsessed with spinning tops that you just want to hug him. Fazio's Simon the Zealot is threatening and intriguing at the same time. There's Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt as a more mature Mary Magdalene, belting out each line to the rafters like solos in a church choir. Count Stovall is an imposing presence as Caiaphas the Elder, with a voice that seems to have merged the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones and Kelsey Grammer. I can't help but be thrust into reveries of Rhapsody in Black when Leland Gantt struts his stuff as Pontius Pilate, embracing his thug persona for all it's worth. And Lawrence Sharp, as the unassuming Saint Thomas, delivers his monologue in Act Two with such determined sincerity that it's no surprise to hear the whole room applaud when he finishes.

Of course, Guirgis' play wouldn't be complete without some discussion of pure good and pure evil. It's easy to steal the show when you're embodying Satan, but Molina affects a quiet charisma. During his scenes in Act One, he's calculating, seductive by suggestion rather than bravado. (As one audience member commented, "It's the guys who don't say much that you have to watch out for the most.") This makes it all the more dramatic when he explodes in Act Two; suddenly those puppy-dog eyes have been filled with seething fire and nobody's safe.

Michael Billingsley as Jesus provides an interesting foil to Molina's Satan because in several respects they aren't that different. Both characters spend their time thinking and observing, and neither appears onstage for long until the very end (though Jesus hovers in the theatre's balcony during most of the play). When Jesus does come into focus, he moves with a dancer's grace, contorting his body so incredibly it's like he's visiting from Godspell. But unlike Satan, whose calm demeanor hides his rage, Billingsley's Jesus has an even temper suffused with openness. Their showdown near the play's close is a beautiful example of Parsons' trademark attention to physicality.

As Judas winds down at the Studio, Parsons hopes to transfer the production Off-Broadway. She's also looking forward to Community Trust, a collection of one-acts to be directed by Daniel Talbott and Kirsten Kelly, which will conclude the Theatre and Social Justice series in May. (Her next Studio project will be a series on Theatre and the Environment.)

"I'm always thinking about how to make theatre exciting to people," Estelle asserts. "Moving them, educating them, entertaining them into a bigger picture. When a play begins to levitate, the effects on the audience are so profound that you need to deal with them."

And when Estelle Parsons produces work like this, you just have to say amen. Saints, sinners, or heavenly nags, we're all theatrical thrillseekers at heart.
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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs at the Actors Studio January 21-24 and 28-31, 2016. Please email reservations@theactorsstudio.org or call 1-212-757-0870 ext. 0 for details.