Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Unit 102)


Judas is put on trial in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, on stage in Toronto

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, brought to radiant life by the Unit102 Acting Company at The Theatre Machine, draws us into a court case—set in Purgatory—for Jesus Christ’s infamous betrayer. He’s been damned to Hell for handing the messiah over to the authorities and then hanging himself.

The cocky, grandstanding prosecution tries to keep him firmly in Hell, while a no-nonsense defence with an axe to grind tries to appeal his damnation and allow him into Heaven. They call to the stand a multitude of witnesses from across history to expose the political climate and examine his character.

The story dives head first into the Biblical account, but it uses a modern perspective and language to do so. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script gives street cred to mystical happenings. Any strangeness you might expect from hearing expert testimony about the loaves and the fishes and the resurrection are completely evaporated by the poetic text and the vivid characterizations.

Director David Lafontaine has helmed a production that never loses momentum. Sometimes the action is quiet, gentle and haunting; sometimes it’s quick, furious and goofy. You can tell he and the ensemble cast love each and every moment for what it is.

And oh, the moments this show gives us! Just imagine some of the folks who take the stand: Sigmund Freud, Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, Simon the Zealot, Satan! Each is eccentric in their own way, and as they are cross-examined, we learn something about their humanity and our own.

I’m not sure what excites me most: the thrilling performances, or the sheer majesty of the ideas. This is a tug of war between divine mercy and human free will, but these very big ideas are made somehow immediate and tangible by Guirgis’ masterful writing and Unit 102’s stunning performances.

This show has impeccable style and forceful narrative thrust. I’m tempted to say the production is slick, but that sounds too…sneaky. Sure, this show puts the moves on you, but not in a sleazy way; it wants to get to know you, and sometimes that requires a bit of seduction.

Jesus and Judas himself never actually take the stand. The rest of the characters seem to revel in telling us who they are, but the pivotal duo are almost ciphers.

For most of the play’s running time, Judas is silent. Even when he’s just sitting there with his guilt and anger, awaiting judgement, Mark Paci has enough presence to ensure he doesn’t seem mopey. And when he finally opens his mouth, often in anger, it’s a relief to hear him give voice to his burden.

We never meet Jesus until the very end. In contrast to Judas—a hulking, brutal, conflicted mess of a man—Christef Desir plays Jesus as calm, gentle and maddeningly tolerant.

The other characters are immediately relatable, so it seems strange at first that Guigis has given Judas and Jesus such mystique. It’s hard for us to really understand how Judas feels about his friend and leader or exactly why he was compelled to turn him in. And with Jesus, his talk of love and acceptance is almost incomprehensible.

And that, ultimately, is the crux of the story: can we really believe in unconditional love? Is it possible for us to put our resentments aside? Can we actually be Good? Goodness is mystifying; it has to be, it’s an ideal. And that conflict between our earthly frailty and divine aspirations is made accessible in the very final moment between Judas and one of his jurors.

In a closing performance by Anthony Ulc that is both unbearably vulnerable and disarmingly funny, we hear this ordinary man’s story, we see how it mirrors that of Judas, and suddenly we feel the full weight of their burden.

This whole cast is fantastic. Some of my favourite characterizations are Brandon Thomas’s sexy, smooth-talking Satan in a business suit, Jamie Johnson’s dignified Pilate with a southern drawl, and Scott Walker’s understated yet intense Caiaphas. Even the one character I despised—the prosecuting lawyer Yusef, played to the hilt by Omar Hady—was, at least, very real to me.

A thematically rich and intense piece of theatre, Unit 102’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot hit me hard.


Photo of Mark Paci provided by the company.

One thought on “Review: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Unit 102)”

  1. A complete aside from the play reviewed here: Yes! It is possible. we really can ” believe in unconditional love”. The trick is to look for any virtue in every person, when you find that, focus on that good quality and none other; you will be seeing God in everyone. Thus, it is not loving the person for who they are but for the virtues one can find in every person. In most religious traditions, this is the only path to “unconditional love” and every tradition demands we try.

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