Photo By: Alyssa Ruddock
This fall, Brock University’s dramatic arts department (DART) is staging their first in-person production in over a year.
After Scenes From an Execution and Fever/Dream were both produced online, both employing wildly different approaches, students are back in person for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
The production will be shown in the theatre at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts from Oct. 29 to Nov. 6, with student tickets available for $15. As physical distancing is still in effect, the audience capacity will be limited and tickets for opening night have already sold out. There will be a talkback about the show happening on Nov. 8 for those who are interested in hearing from the cast and creative team.
The play by Stephen Adly Guirgis deals with the questions surrounding guilt and morality in a courtroom that just so happens to be located in purgatory. Based on that, one may assume that the play is intense and dialogue heavy, but director Leighton Alexander Williams is instead playing into the comedic potential of the script and incorporating a series of electrifying dance numbers.
As a return to in-person theatre, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot offers a great deal of exciting spectacle that audiences would be ill-advised to miss.
Fabiana Cunningham, played by fourth-year concurrent education student Jane Smith, has taken it upon herself to defend Judas (Simon Bell) in a drawn-out court case featuring a range of witnesses from Mother Theresa (Bianca Taylor) to Satan himself (Frankie Turco). Prosecutor Yousef El Fayoumi (Isaiah Alton) fights tooth and nail to bring Fabiana down and sentence Judas to an eternity in hell. God is too busy to have a say in it so it is up to Judge Littlefield (Luke Huffman) to decide Judas’ fate.
Through flashbacks and courtroom testimony, the script questions the motivation behind Judas’ actions and allows the audience to wonder where true forgiveness must come from.
“Sometimes we put ourselves through Hell, because of our inability to forgive ourselves. Good people can make horrible decisions. Therefore, we shouldn’t let our worst mistakes define us. This play showcases the burdensome weight of guilt and self-hatred,” said Williams.
WIlliams has tapped into the isolation and general feeling of being stuck that people have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic to make the experiences of Judas Iscariot within the play feel relevant and timely.
“The characters are in a state of waiting, most of them hoping for a way out; certainly, audiences can relate to this,” said Williams.
This is not the first time Williams has worked on The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. He described what it is about the material that interests him so much.
“I love material that is dichotomous: this play is vulgar, yet heartfelt — it’s comedic, yet tragic. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is one of my favorite plays of all time because of its daring subject matter. I’ve directed my own adaptation of this play, ‘Judas Noir,’ twice now,” said Williams.
Williams explained that ‘Judas Noir’ features an all Black cast and draws parallels between the experiences of Jewish people in the archaic period to what the Black community faces today.
His expertise with the material has given the cast and creative team a lot to work with, and so has his approach to directing. He rejects hierarchies when working on a play. It is all too common in school productions that there is a divide not merely between director/performer but also instructor/student.
“As a director, I’m far more interested in seeing what an actor can bring to a performance truthfully, than having them play an idea I may have in my head. I challenge actors to take ownership of their work and creativity; reminding them that they don’t need to wait for any director’s permission to be brilliant,” said Williams.
The assistant director and actors have found things to love about this play and the process of working with Williams as well. Assistant director Michael Cicchini, who is a fourth-year DART student concentrating in production, sees himself not only as a director for this production but as someone who can give the actors advice that they will carry with them into future productions as well. The theme of self-hatred in the play resonates with his approach to helping actors overcome their fears and lack of self-love.
When talking about the themes in the play that stood out to him, Luke Huffman, a fourth-year DART student minoring in film studies, described how many of the characters are trying to find where they belong, and how important the idea of forgiveness, especially forgiving yourself, determines the fates of many characters in the story.
The actors who will be portraying Judge Littlefield and Fabiana Cunningham shared their interpretation of the roles they play, giving a glimpse into the nuanced character work that is going into this production.
“At some point after his death, Frank [Littlefield] ended up becoming a judge in purgatory, ultimately deciding the final resting places of souls after death. I also like to think he deals with petty squabbles like traffic violations, because that idea is funny to me,” said Huffman about Judge Littlefeild.
Huffman took what the playwright wrote and imagined every detail of the character’s life based on that. Smith described her approach to Cunningham, and why she thinks this character wanted to take on the case of defending Judas Iscariot.
“I interpreted that she considers herself a parallel to Judas in many ways: the societal ridicule, lack of acceptance from others, self-anger, and self-pity. When Fabiana chooses to defend Judas’ case, she is also choosing to defend her own case through him, said Smith. “Throughout the journey of the play, Fabiana becomes more frustrated for Judas and his circumstances — much like she was frustrated by her own circumstances on Earth and now in Purgatory. She develops an immense care for Judas but struggles finding that same care for herself.”
Being able to work in person is another gift that this production has given the cast and creative team. After a long year of struggling through Zoom plays and trying to build ensembles while scattered across the country, the students in DART are finally reunited. Huffman, Smith, and Cicchini shared how thrilled they were to work on this live, in-person production.
Smith described how much she cherishes socializing and connecting with the cast after a year of online classes and shows. Whether during warm-up, lunch breaks, or rides home after rehearsal, she looks forward to seeing them every time she arrives in the studio. Cicchini talked about how after Zoom rehearsals everyone just logs off and is back to being alone, but with an in-person production they get to chat in the halls before rehearsals and during breaks, something he had taken for granted before the pandemic.
“It’s the first time I’m properly acting in anything since 2019, so I’m having a blast. I can’t speak for other people, but I’d imagine many of my cast and crew mates feel the same,” said Huffman.
The return to in-person theatre is not only exciting for the audiences who will get to come to the theatre for the first time in over a year, it is also exciting for the students who have been missing what they got into the dramatic arts for in the first place. Human connection is so important to people everywhere and getting a glimpse into the rehearsal process of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot lets us see just how powerful that connection can be.
The play is staged with audience members on either side of the performers, so each half of the audience will get a different view of the action. Theatre-goers who like to see every single detail of each performance should plan to see it twice, once from each side if they don’t want to miss anything. It sounds as though the production is entertaining and action-packed enough to warrant two viewings.
“Most people will be able to find something to enjoy. There are plenty of comedic moments, plenty of dramatic moments, and a lot of room for interpretation,” said Huffman.
So much heart has gone into bringing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot to Brock University. Any in-person theatre is exciting and it is especially intriguing to see how this ambitious production will go.
Anyone interested in seeing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot can purchase their tickets here.