Darkness and Light and Hopes for Forgiveness :: Steven Bogart on 'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 6, 2019

Hub Theatre Company's website currently boats a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda: "Forgiveness; can you imagine?"

The quote is used in service to the Hub's production of the Stephen Adly-Guirgis play "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," a comedy that's shot through with serious, and even unsettling, themes — forgiveness among them. In the play, Judas — who has languished in Purgatory for two millennia following his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide — is the subject of a legal review. Judas' trial is just that — a trial in the familiar sense of the word, with attorneys and witnesses and evidence. (The witnesses are a telling bunch: They include Mother Theresa, Sigmund Freud, and Satan.)

Judas is a juicy character, paradoxical and fascinating. He's been reviled for two thousand years — but he's also had his defenders. After all, wasn't his "betrayal" of Jesus also part of God's plan? Without it, there would be no passion play; no sacrifice; and, therefore, no redemption. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas — thought to date from the second century, but only published in an English translation in 2006 — takes a stance along those lines, telling the story of Jesus from the perspective of the man whose fate it was to consign him to torture and death, all in the name of transcendent life.

But theology is not necessarily the play's driving force. The play, according to a New York Times review by Laura Collins-Hughes from 2017, is "about the kind of guilt, self-loathing and entrenched despair that can create a permanent personal hell, a form of solitary confinement where the prisoner is insensible to love."

Hub has brought playwright, theater instructor, and screenplay author Steven Bogart in to direct its production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." It seems a good fit; Bogart directed Amanda Palmer in the charming, and chilling, A.R.T. production of "Cabaret" in 2010, and Bogart also helmed the deeply fractured fairy tale that was Company One and Suffolk University's New England premiere of "Shockheaded Peter" in 2015. (The play is derived from a collection of ghastly children's stories titled, in its original German, "Der Struwwelpeter." Disobedient children in this brutal anthology meet gruesome fates that would leave even Edward Gorey, with his gleefully gore-drench "Gashleycrumb Tinies," appalled.)

As a challenge to our received notions around religion, history, and morality, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" prompts questions that may be more urgent now than ever. Are our notions of good and evil, not to mention the divine and the sinister, as clear-cut as they seem? When the Christian story of blood sacrifice and redemption is viewed from the lens of its greatest villain, how does that change our understanding? And in times like these, with deeply-carved battle lines drawn all around us, is it still possible to contemplate stories that don't conform to ready-made (and convenient) narratives?

EDGE chatted with Steven Bogart to get his take.

EDGE: First, let me ask how you came to direct this particular production for HUB Theater?

Steven Bogart: Lauren, the artistic director, asked me a little less than a year ago if I would direct something for them, and they offered a couple of plays. The first one was more of a light drawing-room farce, which is really not up my alley. The other one was this play, which, when I read it — I mean, I knew about it, but I hadn't read it before — and I was very inspired by it. I said, "Can we do this one?" and they said, "Let's do it!"

EDGE: Stephen Adly Guirgis imagines Judas — the betrayer of Jesus — at a kind of parole hearing in Purgatory. That is a pretty high-concept idea! How do you characterize the play's deeper meanings? Is it a play about justice, or mercy, or theological philosophy?

Steven Bogart: I think it's about all of those things. I think it's about the distance between earthly justice and divine justice. There are some major arguments in the play where divine justice has more mercy than earthly justice. But I also think the whole through-line of the play is the idea of fallibility, remorse, and forgiveness. I feel like all the characters are on that trajectory in some form, including Jesus.

EDGE: How comfortably does this play fit with Guirgis' other work? I mean, for example, does it comfortably coexist with "The Motherfucker with the Hat" and "Between Riverside and Crazy," or do we have to kind of turn the other cheek and expect something a little different from him here?

Steven Bogart: I don't know — I don't think so. His work is always somehow about this kind of stuff, I think. With this play, he talks about how incredibly challenging it was when he finally realized what it was that he was trying to do. I think these themes are there within his plays, in different forms.

EDGE: A couple of years ago, Guirgis got into a bit of a strop with a theater in San Francisco that offered an expurgated version of the play. Boston is not at all a censorious theater environment, but are there bits to "Judas Iscariot" you might have wished to tone down at all? (Or do you rather want to crank it right up to 11?)

Steven Bogart: Yeah, I heard about that theater company. They cut it down. I think initially they got permission from him and he said okay — I don't remember the exact story. Then they made a big deal about the fact that he let them cut it down as said, "We're presenting the first annotated version of [this play]," and from there he said, "You know what? I'm not going to let you do it." I think that's what it was.

But as far as this production, I have no desire to tone this play down in any way. I mean, the play is very funny in places, but it's very, very dark as well, and I think the darkness in the play is really important. It starts out with a pretty funny first act, and there's definitely funny things in the second act, but it really takes a turn in the second act. It just descends from there. I think it's really interesting, that it's written that way.

EDGE: So, darkness, betrayal, the theme of forgiveness — it seems it's a very fitting play for this turbulent moment in history.

Steven Bogart: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we all are polarized in so many ways and have a very hard time stepping into each others' shoes and seeing the world from different people's points of view. We easily take sides and condemn others, so I think yes, that's true: It's easy to condemn, and it's hard to forgive. I think that's what's going on in the play as well.

EDGE: "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" premiered in 2005, a year before the "Gospel of Judas" — a Gnostic gospel thought to have been written in the second century - made headlines when it was released in translation for the first time by the National Geographic Society. Did you refer to the Gospel of Judas to derive any ideas for how to handle this play?

Steven Bogart: I didn't look at that, actually. I read parts of the New Testament, I went back to look at some of those things, but I didn't go back to look into all of that stuff. I really just delved into what the play on its own is doing. And we did have a dramaturg on board who helped us do some research.

EDGE: There have been arguments that Judas' role was regrettable — even to him — but necessary in order for Jesus to fulfill his mission on Earth, and to be the ultimate sacrifice that redeems humankind for all time. Is that something the play touches on?

Steven Bogart: I think that Guirgis is going there subtextually, or more indirectly, although I know that aspect of the Judas-Jesus story really bothered him, and that he thought that Jesus could forgive everybody but he couldn't forgive his best friend, and his best friend is in Hell. I think Gurigis is very, very bothered by that and that's part of his writing of the play.

Our take on it —I don't know if this is a spoiler alert — is that when we were working on it, I was talking about it in general with everybody [about the characters] searching for their own redemption throughout the play, based on the different sides that they take. And then I suggested that Jesus needed redemption and forgiveness from Judas. That's the tension that we have going on in the play — that Jesus also is looking for forgiveness. It's not just Judas who betrayed Jesus, but it's also Jesus who betrayed Judas. It's not something that is stated out loud, it's just the intention of the actor playing Jesus in terms of what he wants in the play. That helps to find some different kinds of energy.

EDGE Speaking of the cast, you have a wonderful group of actors for this play — Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia plays Judas, Jamie Hernandez plays Jesus, and Liz Adams, and Robert Orzalli have roles. And you have Victor Shopov playing Satan — this might be the perfect role for him!


Steven Bogart: He's awesome. He was great from day one. He's so much fun in the room — you never know what he's going to do next. I think that's perfect for Satan — you never know what Satan is going to do.

EDGE: How involved were you with the casting, and what were you looking for from actors for the various roles?

Steven Bogart: I was involved in the casting from day one, and in general I was looking for brave actors who brought truth to what they were doing. And one of the things we've been working on is, yes, the play is very funny, but we're not playing for comedy. We're letting the comedy take care of itself so that the characters feel human and three-dimensional. I think it's easy to fall into a sort of hamming things up. So, that's what we're trying, anyway — we'll see how successful we are.

EDGE: What else do you have coming up?

Steven Bogart: I have no theater gigs coming up at all; they come like messages in a bottle sometimes. But a writer friend of mine and I co-wrote a feature movie that we're going to shoot in the spring. Right now we've started an Indiegogo campaign to try and raise some funds so that we can pay actors. When this is over I'll be focusing on that.

EDGE: Are you also going to direct that film?

Steven Bogart: I'm going to be directing, and my writer friend is going to be the cinematographer. And we're going to edit it together.

EDGE: Is this your first time directing a movie?

Steven Bogart: Yes. I mean, I've made little things just on my own, but this is the first real movie that we're actually going to make. I've been writing screenplays for a long time, and it's so hard to get a screenplay sold, so we decided to see if we could do it ourselves.

We're planning to shoot it guerilla-style, with a very low budget, probably using mostly cell phones. But the cell phones, you can get all these great lenses for them now, so it's almost you can do anything you want with them. We'll shoot it sometime in the spring, maybe, in June; we're planning on a two-week shoot, and then it will probably take us at least six months to edit it.

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" runs at First Church in Boston Nov. 8 - 23. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.hubtheatreboston.org/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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