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Theatre in Review: Judas (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble)

Jeffrey Marc Alkins, Craig Smith. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Robert Patrick's drama about the birth of Christianity may be titled Judas, but it's Pontius Pilate who gets all the tastiest speeches. There's a kind of rough justice at work here. In so many stage and film versions, Pilate often barely rates a cameo, and even when he gets a half-decent scene he is usually portrayed as a weak sister, compulsively wringing his hands when not washing them, endlessly second-guessing his decision to turn Jesus over to the Sanhedrin. Not this time: From the moment we see him, standing in his tower, surveying, with no small satisfaction, the layout of Jerusalem with a pair of binoculars -- for the purposes of his play, Patrick has conjoined the rule of the Roman Empire with the topography of 21st-century Israel -- he is by far the most continually stimulating presence on stage.

Patrick's Pilate is cheerfully, brazenly cynical: Without a second thought, he dispenses with King Herod, the local, Rome-appointed ruler, pretending to forgive him for killing John the Baptist, then casually turning him over to the mob that will rip him to shreds. (In Patrick's telling, the doings in Herod's household -- he killed John because his wife, Herodias, offered him her daughter Salome; he killed Herodias because she was also his sister-in-law; and he killed Salome to atone for all his other crimes -- reads like it was ripped from the pages of the National Enquirer.) Nevertheless, his only devotion is to order and the rule of law -- at least for others. To Pilate, religion is a method of controlling an unruly people; he even allows that Rome, with its god-emperor Octavian, is as big a lie as any other theocracy. He adds, however, "It is the last necessary lie," because "it is run by men who know the truth."

For this reason, Pilate is bemused by the Jewish people, who retain a sense of identity even if they lack the accoutrements of nationhood, such as land and freedom. He muses, "Every empire that ever enslaved them has been nothing but a period in their history...They have made themselves a nation of the mind, something we are just learning to do...Their God, to begin with, is their God alone. They make no effort to proselytize others to his worship." That last proposition is about to be put to the test because of a troublesome fellow named Jesus, whose followers are proliferating daily. And, as cavalier as he can be with human lives, Pilate is distinctly put out -- even dismayed -- when Jesus is brought to him for punishment, because he understands that he is only an actor in the drama of Jesus' martyrdom, and he feels played. Worse, he knows, on some level, that Jesus' death will threaten the Roman establishment. What follows is a lengthy and altogether remarkable speech -- one part attempted bribery, one part bill of contempt, and one part cri de coeur -- in which Pilate tries every possible stratagem to talk Christ out of his self-destructive path.

Without an actor capable of handling these rhetorical flights, Judas would probably have become a long slog through what may fairly be termed The Most Familiar Story Ever Told. But Craig Smith is just the man for the job. His Pilate is serenely aware of the world's wicked ways, savoring each of life's paradoxes like a serving of fine wine. ("Men don't die for their beliefs. They die from them.") Take note how, with considerable satisfaction, he avers that there's no point to religious oppression because the believers sooner or later kill each other, thus saving him the trouble. And listen to the sharpness in his voice when, troubled by Judas' anguish, he urges the young man to get married, as soon as possible. And his handling of Pilate's climactic tirade -- his sheer ability to sustain a line of rising tension while laying bare his increasing discomfort with this silent fellow would-be God -- is a fine demonstration of the actor's mastery of his craft.

As it happens, Pilate has a personal reason to be angry with Jesus, who has invaded the troubled mind and spirit of the title character. In one of Patrick's innovations, Judas, a native of Judea, is an "executive trainee" who is attached to Pilate to learn the rules of statecraft and become part of the ruling elite. Pilate has developed a surprisingly fatherly affection for Judas, but the younger man is a mass of divided loyalties, not fully allied with his own people or their rulers, attracted to Jesus' teachings but unable to embrace them. Or, as Judas puts it, pouring out his frustration to Peter, Jesus' closest associate, "The fact is that the world is already split up into sides, and the only choice you really have -- if you even have that -- is which side you join. And the worst thing is that any side you join, you have to give up everything the other sides have to offer. No, that's not the worst. The worst is that whichever side you do join, you're automatically betraying all the other sides. No, worse, you're born on a side, you're born a traitor, even before you're born you're already a traitor to most of the people in the world."

This quote comes from a lengthy speech that the gifted Josh Tyson, who plays Judas, handles with force and lucidity, pursuing the character's tortured logic with Javert-like relentlessness. It is one of the play's weaknesses, however, that Patrick never really gets to the heart of Judas' torment. Indeed, part of Judas' frustration is his inability to name what is eating at him. Patrick, of course, is one of the seminal American gay playwrights, and there are hints, here and there, that Judas is struggling with a same-sex attraction that he cannot name, but the point is never pursued. After a while, Judas' frustration becomes our own, and his constant worrying of an ill-defined spiritual unease becomes a bit of a drag.

Nevertheless, Judas retains his central role in the drama, because he is torn between the philosophies of Pilate and Jesus, the play's real antagonists. It's not a fair fight; Pilate is almost oversupplied with good material while Jesus' dialogue often seems to consist of nothing but euphemisms; his sense of his mission can't really be put into words. One of Patrick's most original ideas is the depiction of Mary, the Mother of God, as a kind of theological stage mother, convinced that her son has a divine destiny to rule Judea. But the early scenes between them and Joseph, Mary's husband, are pretty turgid, like outtakes from some old MGM biblical epic; the wit of the Pilate scenes is abandoned for dialogue that is portentous, heavy with meaning. Still, Jeffrey Marc Alkins' Jesus is convincingly haunted by a vision that no one else on stage really sees, and his silent presence during Pilate's oration is its own powerful rebuke of the Roman's obsession with temporal power.

And so Judas is founded on a triangle as vexing as that contained in any romantic drama: Pilate, with his commitment to an earthly paradise, by any means necessary, pitted against Jesus, whose pursuit of a deeply interior form of peace confounds even his close followers -- and, in the middle, Judas, who can't commit to either side. Patrick is concerned with how and why civilizations survive, and whether their founding ideas must be true as long as the plumbing is sound, and the streets are clean and safe. What does belonging -- to a nation, a religion -- mean in terms of one's identity? And why does the mysterious and interior nature of Jesus' spirituality seem so threatening to so many? It was an interesting experience to see Judas a week after attending the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Saint Joan. Shaw and Patrick seemingly have many of the same questions on their mind.

Smith's production is fairly solid, with good contributions from Josh F. S. Moser as Pilate's sneaky assistant and Ariel Estrada as Peter, whose seemingly unshakable faith gets quite a test at Judas' hands. Elise Stone's Mary is overstated in the early scenes, but this may be the fault of the writing; later on, she vividly conveys the horror of a mother who may have pushed her son into disaster.

Juan Merchan's simple set design, with the symbol of Rome painted on the deck, works well, but his lighting could provide more coverage; the principals' faces were shrouded in darkness a little too often. The addition of a few specials would help in another way, too: Atillio Rigotti's wraparound projections -- of Jerusalem, cloudy skies, and leafless trees in moonlight -- are front-projected, which sometimes causes them to obscure the actors' faces. Debbi Hobson's costumes and Ellen Mandel's original music and sound design are both appropriate.

Judas is an expansive play, rather old-fashioned in its structure, which proceeds more by argument than by action. At times, it threatens to lose focus and some scenes are better written than others. But the argument is provocative, and the questions linger. Cheers to Phoenix Theatre Ensemble for bringing it to our attention. -- David Barbour

(3 May 2018)

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