This Play Is Tragic, OK?!
Trial by Fire stumbles with too-blunt Judas
By Suzi Steffen
“An actor can make anything happen onstage,” says The New Yorker’s Hilton Als in a recent theater review.
One thing a good actor — Richard Leebrick, for instance — can’t do, however, is rewrite a script so riddled with painful obviousness that it’s a wonder anyone ever read it.
Leebrick, Don Aday (who performs admirably as a cantankerous judge), Cristina St. Charles in a funny and profane performance as St. Augustine’s mother and other Eugene theatrical stars can’t save the ponderous, tendentious The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, now running at Trial by Fire Theatreworks.
I’ve admired Trial by Fire and its peripatetic artistic director Benjamin Newman (who also directs, and also stars in, many of its plays) for some years. The company’s recent Ubu Roi was wonderfully comic and smartly absurd, if overlong; our theater critic Anna Grace gave many kudos to the also lengthy HurlyBurly. Newman and general manager Emily Hart — in Judas, she plays a guilty, proud, feminist, angry lawyer — spark groups of actors to work furiously hard and with a marvelous degree of trust.
But Judas, whose arguments about predestination and free will, guilt and innocence, remain towering problems of and for Christianity, needs to be trimmed if it’s to be performed at all. Its overdetermined tone — everyone’s pugnacious and/or wet-eyed with sympathy almost every minute — could use some cleaning up as well. A few moments of humor pop in with Bruce Lundy as a sexy Sigmund Freud and Leebrick playing up the goofy side of his character, but the self-serious, sophomoric script overwhelms even the stronger actors most of the time.
For a company, perhaps the attraction is that many actors get plum parts. The trial itself takes nearly three hours, monologue after declamatory monologue rolling beautifully off the tongues of everyone from Nancy West as Caiaphas the Elder to St. Charles as Pontius Pilate. Meanwhile, Newman’s Judas lolls nearby, half-catatonic, with his mouth hanging open, vaguely reacting to the trial while an angel (Lindy Comrada, usually mute and hovering like a character from Wings of Desire) or Jesus (Charlene Westbrook) comforts him. Entirely too much stage business around Judas blunts the effect of his suicide and condemnation, and a long final monologue from Butch Honeywell (played finely by Ryan Olson) only serves to point up an unfortunate lack of depth in the Jesus/Judas interactions. I don’t object to discussing the Judas/Jesus issue — it’s central to the largely Christian self-perception of people in the U.S. I’d suggest Christopher Moore’s surprisingly intense Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, for a nuanced, funnier, more devastating and smarter fictional take on the Jesus/Judas free will/predestination questions.
Trial by Fire could be one of the most exciting things going in Eugene. It attracts actors like Chip Sherman, Russell Dyball, Ralph Steadman (a nastily funny Satan) and Leebrick, who’s amusing here but not quite able to redeem his character. Even Trial by Fire’s failures could be spectacular, thanks to a taste for edgy dramas and tightly knit casts. But it will not work without a different approach to scripts. An actor not in the show told me, “Navelgazing shouldn’t overtake service to an audience,” and that may mean trimming windy plays. Do better, please, Trial by Fire. You can, you have, and I surely hope that you will in the future.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs through Nov. 20 at Upstart Crow Studios. Tix at 541-683-1429 or the door.