Sometimes magic happens in unexpected places, even a woebegone Long Beach hole-in-the-wall whose thesps must do battle with the jukebox bass and screeching kids from the Italian restaurant next door. Garage Theater’s “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is overlong and inconsistently acted, but at its best — which is most of the time — it fills the stuffy air with remarkable theatrical artistry and the pulse of real life.
Audience gingerly steps into Garage’s tiny ticky-tacky box of floor trash, surrounded by designer Staci Walters’ black and white, Jackson Pollock-nightmare wall treatment.
Environment couldn’t be more fitting for author Stephen Adly Guirgis’ phantasmagorical court proceeding in Purgatory, designed to rehabilitate — or damn forever — history’s biggest lowlife, Jesus’ betrayer.
The legal proceedings are as much Black Mass as Blackstone, and helmer Eric Hamme has a field day with the interplay of contemporary jurisprudence and (literal) Hellzapoppin. Most of the hilarity comes from Rory Cowan’s dazzling turn as the sinuous, toadying prosecutor, with cameo support from celebrity witnesses Mother Teresa (Elisa Richter, simply wonderful) and Freud (an incisive Paul Knox).
Yet Judas himself (a messianically intense Matthew Anderson) is always within view — catatonic in the present tense, or anguished in flashback — to remind us of Guirgis’ higher purpose. It’s hinted in the impassioned opening monologue from the grieving Henrietta Iscariot (Kristal Greenlea). Villain or not, this was a mother’s child like the rest of us. Where is God as we sin, and why on earth should we worship a deity so capricious?
As Guirgis begins to relate the episodes of Jesus’ Passion to age-old questions of God and man, the Garage proves itself superbly capable of switching gears from knockabout farce to metaphysical inquiry. Yet another standout performance comes from Jeff Kriese as Satan, a plumpish fratboy exuding equal measures of charm and ferocity as he juggles the paradoxes of God’s power, sin’s consequences and our own responsibility in the equation.
Judas’ silence is broken, and his heart revealed, in a confrontation with Jesus (Slade Lewis) in which Hamme breathtakingly executes a mood shift to the profoundly sacred, bringing the parallax between biblical betrayal and our own everyday inadequacies into alignment.
Not every episode is performed with equal facility. In particular, defense counsel Cunningham (Amy Louise Sebelius) and Judge Littlefield (Daniel Tennant) start at such high notes of caricature (and volume) as to wear out their welcome long before intermission.
But when Satan pierces Cunningham’s armor plating, Sebelius is up to the emotional challenge, and Tennant finds reserves of pained gravity in High Priest Caiaphas.
And in a funny way, the audible distractions emanating from Tony’s Restaurant yield an unexpected dividend. Guirgis’ beat has always been the urban jungle, and there’s something crazily appropriate about street life punctuating his effort to find contemporary relevance within Bible stories. If nothing else it’s a constant reminder that Guirgis’ kingdom, unlike that of the Prince of Peace, is very much of this world.