Almost Heaven 

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is one hell of a play.

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Richmond's Acts of Faith theater festival, which has been churning pleasantly along for the past seven weeks, comes to a loud and cantankerous close with “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” produced cooperatively by Henley Street Theatre Company and the Richmond Triangle Players. More than any other production I've seen during the festival, “Judas” takes big theological ideas and dramatizes them in ways that are challenging, invigorating, often hilarious and occasionally poignant.

There are a couple of things to dislike about this play, though. At nearly 3 hours, it's a good half hour too long and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis sometimes sacrifices dramatic momentum in his attempt to touch all of the relevant theoretical bases.

But there are so many more things to love. Guirgis's script is broad and brilliant enough to include things as varied as a succinct breakdown of Hegel's dialectic, bad puns and goofy nonsequiturs (“Puppets are bullshit!”). Characters including Satan and Sigmund Freud deliver speeches shot-through with a mix of philosophy and urban poetry, the resulting patois both illuminating and eloquent. And under director Bo Wilson's clear guidance, a tragedy that happened thousands of years ago seems bracingly relevant today.

The play is structured like a courtroom drama, unfolding on a spare set designed by Brian Barker, artfully cluttered with what looks like centuries' worth of administrative paperwork and skillfully lit by lighting designer Andrew Bonniwell. Wilson relies on a divine trinity of veteran actors to anchor his production: Jennie Meharg and David Clark as two lawyers arguing over whether Judas Iscariot really deserves to languish in Hell and Christopher Dunn as the presiding judge.

As prosecutor, Clark is a whirling dervish of comic outrage, utilizing an unwavering Egyptian accent to his best advantage. Though tough enough to deliver a blistering cross-examination against Mother Theresa (Kristen Swanson), Meharg effectively reveals a deeper existential frustration behind her spirited defense. And Dunn's no-nonsense judge is withering in his disdain but also harbors a surprising secret.

Various spiritual guides, such as a delightfully profane St. Monica (Diana Carver) and a streetwise St. Peter (Adrian Grantz), provide commentary on the proceedings. But the highlights come as different witnesses offer their unique historical perspectives, none more electrifying than Pontius Pilate (Ronnie Brown). Brown's turn as the hard-core Roman enforcer will give you goose bumps.

Near the end, an emotionally wrenching scene between Judas (a convincing Logan Bennett) and Jesus (an appropriately serene Jesse Mattes) plays out in counterpoint to a quietly tragic one with Jonathan Conyers as a modern-day sinner. The play's final gift is insight into who may be keeping Judas in Hell. Like the rest of “Judas,” it's surprising and satisfying.

 

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is playing at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave., through March 19.  Tickets are $15-$25. For information, call 340-0115 or go to http://www.henleystreettheatre.org.

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