Raleigh Ensemble Players Theatre Company’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot opened appropriately (or some might say inappropriately) on Ash Wednesday in the company’s new and fantastic space at 213 Fayetteville Street. The show puts infamous biblical villain Judas Iscariot on trial somewhere between heaven and hell, and everyone from Mother Teresa to Sigmund Freud makes an appearance in this smart and strangely touching production.
After a brief lament from Henrietta Iscariot (Christine Rogers), Judas’ mother, the story jumps right into the action of the courtroom. Shawn Smith is perfectly cast as the stodgy old judge, who has just the right touch of sweetness hiding underneath his rough exterior, and even the bailiff (Byron Jennings) adds a special flavor to a role that would otherwise have been forgettable. Prosecuting attorney Yusef El-Fayoumy (Kenneth De Abrew) provides needed comic relief with his clever one-liners, heavily accented speech, and desperate attempts to catch the attention of the attractive defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Lori Scarborough Ingle). Ingle is one of the breakouts of the show, portraying her feisty character with subtle hints of vulnerability and broad strokes of rage. Other memorable roles include Lucius Robinson’s slimy, oddly sexy, and utterly hilarious Satan, and Lormarev Jones’ foul-mouthed and energetic portrayal of Saint Monica (on roller skates!). As the action continues and various witnesses make their cases for and against Iscariot, all of the characters onstage remain active and engaging, even when they don’t say a word.
The story takes a lot of twists and turns, showing the audience what Judas (Ryan Brock) was like as an eight year old boy and giving teasing little hints as to the lives of the other characters. Most of the cast plays more than one role, but the changes are effortless, thanks to careful direction from C. Glen Matthews. Dramatic and daring lighting choices complement the wide range of emotions the production invokes. It varies between wildly funny and tenderly heartfelt; one might even dare to say it borders on spiritual at times. This show is far from the religious bashing snarkfest many might expect. In fact, it paints spirituality and even humanity in a surprisingly positive light.
This production is original, refreshing, and startlingly well done. With one of the strongest casts imaginable, picture-perfect costumes (including a “Jesus is My Homeboy” t-shirt), and lots of laughter and tears along the way, this could easily become one of the best productions of the year.