Review: ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ by Vagabond Theatre Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“With support and funding for the arts in short supply, simply attending a performance of a local theatre company is one of the greatest acts of generosity a community can give those who live to create. At a time when we are all interconnected and in constant, digital contact finding folks willing to turn off their devices for two or three hours and get lost in another world on a stage is a tall order.” - John R. Smith Jnr Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director of The Vagabond Theatre Company of Greater Bridgeport

The Vagabond Theatre Company is the rebirth of The Bijou Actors Guild, a troupe formerly in residence at Bridgeport’s Bijou Theatre that prides itself on staging rarely produced, thought-provoking productions not offered at other local theaters that stage more family-friendly fare. The Bijou was a converted movie theatre with minimal backstage space, limited tech equipment and minimal budget, so out of necessity they group presented productions that stripped shows to the bare bones, with staging focused on lights and sound over sets and costumes. This allowed the audience to focus on the performances of the actors and the words of the playwrights.

When they were forced to relocate, the company wandered from stage to stage (hence their new name) and ultimately landed in their current haven, The Performing Arts Center of CT. The Warehouse Blackbox Theater at PACC is a relatively large, nicely equipped space located on Lindeman Drive in Trumbull that was easy to find. The ultimate goal of VBT is to establish a professional theatre with their own performance space that encourages new works, identifies new talent and pays actors and staff for their work. 

I share the backstory of this group because I think it explains why they chose ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis as their next production. The play was originally produced off Broadway and was directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The dark comedy fits well with the Vagabond’s mission and former limitations. Director Mat Young writes that “on the surface it is an absurdist courtroom drama about Judas Iscariot and the idea that: if Jesus died for everyone’s sins, shouldn’t Judas be forgiven?” He goes on to say that the play is more about us and our ability to forgive ourselves and points out that the playwright layers these ideas with colorful characters and biting and humorous dialogue, yielding a full theatrical experience. By day, Mr. Young is a Theatre and Tech teacher at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School in New Haven. 

So a catatonic Judas is on trial in the courthouse at Hope Station in the Purgatory Subway System during the summer of 2004. The play effectively uses flashbacks to the betrayer’s childhood and the testimonies of varied witnesses including Mother Teresa, Saint Monica, Sigmund Freud, Pilate and Satan. Many of the characters have vulgarity-laced monologues,thereby losing that family-friendly status. While there were perfectly appropriate costumes and a very effective small projection spot set up (with video design by the director,) there was definitely a bare bones look and feel. The opening night audience had no choice but to focus on the performances, that ranged from very good to outstanding, and the almost three hours of words. 

The cast had to cover a lot of characters, so two ladies had to play five distinct roles; others had only two, but all had large monologues to memorize and every one of them did well with bringing the biblical/historical characters to life, sometimes switching genders to do so. While the penultimate scene of the accused conversing with Jesus embodied by the other cast members was very strong, the final more quiet scene was, for me, a less effective way to end the three hours. 

Ainsley Andrade was Pontius Pilate with an attitude, as well as St. Matthew the apostle. Juan Ayala, a founding member of VTC and their graphic designer, played the prosecuting attorney Yusef El Fayoumy; unfortunately I missed several of his lines in the first act, but it got better in the second half. Bridgeport native Lynnette Victoria was a stand out in the role of the feisty defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham. Congratulations to this young woman on her spectacular character development.

Eric James Dino in his VTC debut embodied the role of the devil, clad in a classic leisure suit and it worked. Patrick Duffy played the foreman of the jury, a man named Butch Honeywell. John T Liszewski (in his VTC debut) tried to run the trial as Judge Littleton but recused himself to testify as biblical Caiaphas the Elder. Alynne Miller did well with her various roles of an angel named Gloria, a demure Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, Matthias of Galilee and a soldier. Giovanna Olcese, born in Lima, Peru, was a strong and foul-mouthed St. Monica, but also played three other small roles. Maggie Pangrazio was a fun bit of comic relief during the courtroom scenes as the lollipop-fueled bailiff and she also played Simon the Zealot with aplomb. 

Justine Wiesinger was outstanding in all of her demanding roles. She opened the show as the grieving mother of Judas, Henrietta Iscariot, the beloved Mother Teresa, St. Thomas, Sigmund Freud and a soldier. This young woman is a Yale Ph.D. candidate and recently returned from studying Japanese film and theater on a Fulbright scholarship. Co-Artistic Director John R Smith Jnr took on the sullen role of the title character; his wife Tanya Feduik-Smith shares the role of artistic director with him. Ms. Feduik-Smith served as producer and is credited with the perfect lighting.

‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ continues Fridays/Saturdays March 18, 24 and 25 at 8PM and Sundays March 19 and 26 at 5PM at the Warehouse Blackbox at Performing Arts Center of Connecticut, 18 Lindeman DR in Trumbull. General Admission - $20, Students/Seniors - $15
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