REVIEW: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

The play begins with a distraught mother’s monologue about her son, dead now, presumably in Hell, and hated by the world. She states that if her son is in Hell then God cannot exist. Needless to say, the monologue is full of despair and unease, an uncertainty about certain fate–it is a mother refusing to accept what she knows to be true, with such force and emotion, that the audience also doubts what they know to be true. This is, in part, the beauty of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot–the certainties you come in with must be tossed aside, here, nothing is certain and everything is up for debate.

Then it all shifts. The stage goes dark. When the lights come back on, we are being introduced to Purgatory, the place people go where their fates have not yet been decided, quite literally, in a courtroom. The mood is no longer dramatic, but funny, even bubbly, as a vivacious angel shows us around. Deathly silence has been replaced by laughter as we are introduced to the real characters of this show: a judge and two lawyers, one fighting for Judas, the other for Heaven. This is now a courtroom drama, albeit one ruled by the dead.

As the play goes on (and it does go on–it has a runtime of 2.5 hours), many different characters, primarily historical figures or religious icons, make appearances in the courtroom, called on as witnesses. These range from Mother Teresa to Sigmund Freud to Pontius Pilate, and when I say characters, I mean characters. These are not mild-mannered, historically-researched portrayals, but updated, bawdy versions, almost cartoonish. Mother Teresa is practically deaf and prone to talking about “handsome boys.” Sigmund Freud is a braggart, egotistical and cocky, beyond what even his worse critics would claim. Pontius Pilate dresses and acts like a rapper from the 90s, basketball jersey and goldchains, talking about his bros. They are caricatures, in a way, and easy humor, but somehow, they still manage a deadly seriousness. They have, after all, come here to decide a man’s eternal fate, and though sometimes that thought is not at the forefront, it is never fully forgotten, and the tone of play flips between with ease. Further, though many of these characters clearly side with either the prosecution or defense, their testimonies never fully condemn or exonerate. Viewers do not get a clear answer on Judas and what he deserves, only waters further muddled by questions personal, philosophical, and political. The play demonstrates that even if we can construct the events exactly as they happened, we will never fully understand the why behind them or how to proceed.

If you want answers and certainties, this is not the play for you. Even at the end, after the verdict has been passed, the final scene leaves the audience not knowing what they hope, what it even is they could hope for. Though often a comedy, this play is, at its core a tragedy.

SMTD’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was excellent. The acting was phenomenal, managing the twists in tone deftly and with heart, and the Arthur Miller made for a particularly perfect stage.

REVIEW: You For Me For You

You For Me For You is a title that accurately conveys the general theme within the play: the juxtapositions that result in a dizzying, even disorienting perception of time, space, and what it means to inhabit both dreams and reality. Sacrifice also plays a large role in the play; what we give up in the name of love and hope.

Sisters Minhee and Junhee live in North Korea, which is, of course, an incredibly oppressive and frightening place to live in. Citizens live their lives in fear and under constant surveillance, and after an altercation with a local doctor, Junhee decides to flee across the border. While the two attempt to escape, Minhee trips and falls down a well, where she is left behind. Junhee leaves for New York City, where she experiences what it means to be an American. After time passes and the two sisters discover truths about themselves, they are finally reunited, a happy affair that nonetheless has its own elements of sacrifice.

This play, written by Mia Chung and directed by Priscilla Lindsay, was the first Department of Theater and Drama production I have ever seen. I thought that the performers played their parts very well; they showed the audience a spectrum of emotions, ranging from humor to anguish. Without spoiling it, I thought that the end of the play was a very interesting one; sober, but also a stark contrast to the ideas of hope and risk-reward that were explored earlier in the play.

However, I was admittedly left quite confused by the play itself, though perhaps that disorientation was the point. Without spoiling the plot of the play, I will say that there were certain ideas that felt disconnected or unthreaded, and characters whom I was uncertain of it they were alive or dead. I was also confused about the giant walking teddy bear (???) and the actual fates and natures of Minhee’s husband and son. You For Me For You is advertised as being a play about magical-realism, and I thought that that was an interesting take on such a topic. There was definitely a discernible element of fantasy in the play; the problem for me, at least, was understanding where fantasy ended and reality began; this issue is only something I point out because it complicated my understanding of the plot, simply for logistical reasons.

Nonetheless, there were certain decisions in the play’s execution that I believe were exclusive to this production, though I cannot be sure. (Again, I am not very knowledgeable about the field of acting and theater). For one, the decision to give Minhee an accompanying voice actor to narrate her parts in the script was one that sparked a lot of interest. The voice actress sat at the edge of the stage; when Minhee ‘spoke,’ her lips moved silently. Her ‘voice’ came from the actress sitting in the corner. I found myself talking to the girl next to me about what she thought about this decision, and we actually had two very different opinions about the ideas behind the decision to not give Minhee ‘her own voice’ (her sister, Junhee, voiced her own parts.)

You For Me For You was a play that was enjoyable to watch, yes, but it also sparked a lot of ideas and topics for potential discussion for me. As we exited the theater, my fellow audience members were discussing possible interpretations of several of the more confusing scenes of the play. If you are ever able to view this production in the future, I would highly encourage it. I would also suggest watching with a group of friends, with whom you can discuss the ambiguous scenes and ideas with afterwards.

Image credits: Happening @ Michigan

REVIEW: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Have you ever had your stomach hurt from laughing so hard one second and then holding your breath, trying not to cry the next second? That was me Friday night as I sat in the Arthur Miller Theatre, a room completely tense and enraptured as it awaited the judgment on Judas Iscariot — a traitor, a follower, a son, an enemy, a friend, a betrayer, a human.

I read The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in my creative writing class last semester, so I already knew how good this play was. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s ability to craft a work that is simultaneously light and heavy is a marvel in of itself, and one I greatly appreciated when I studied it.

However, I was not prepared for SMTD’s production of this play. This 18-person cast found itself waddling through a script as dense as osmium and managed to give the theater a collective headache that was frequently alleviated with the hearty laughter that this play relies on to carry its extremely deep message.

As a contemporary play, the updated references from 2005 in the script, as well as the wardrobe and music choices, brought a fresh take on this still-relevant work that is religious in every aspect and completely more than religion at the same time.

Everyone put their heart, mind, and soul into their character, and their dominant presence on the stage made the stage disappear and brought these characters to life. They nailed every monologue (and boy, were those some monologues!) and beat and intricate detail of a personality that made each character unique.

In purgatory, we catch glimpses of complex souls and the competing narratives of stories and the duality of humanity. The dynamic between the short-tempered judge struggling to find his truth and the incompetent and innocent bailiff struggling to find an acceptable case for the judge was hilariously captured by Ben Ahlers and Josh Strobl as Strobl ran around trying to appease the demands being barked at him.

The courtroom atmosphere was enhanced by the questioning that the condescending, flirtatious El-Fayoumy and the cold, determined Cunningham intensely fired back and forth. Alexander Sherwin made me comically uncomfortable with his over-the-top approach to law and flattery, and Kat Ward’s command of the courtroom in his presence was a victory for all women. Speaking of women — Mikaela Secada completely dominated the fierce and sassy Saint Monica, and her scene is a beautiful example of the complexity of the nature of emotions an individual can harbor, her nagging attitude and honest compassion making her monologue surprisingly and ultimately human.

The penultimate scene with Judas and Jesus is heartwrenching. As Liam Allen and Mason Reeves explored the depths of despair in a plea just imploring for love and forgiveness, I felt my heart stop and time froze as the pure emotions being displayed on the stage was too much and too real. Allen and Reeves completely nailed this powerful moment, and their sincerity and intensity made this play that much harder to watch and grapple with — which is a testimony to the entire cast’s talent and ability.

We make our own choices. And those choices inherently include sins. What we do with those sins — the emotional acceptance necessary of our actions — is also up to us. If anything is to come afterward, we must first be able to forgive ourselves and believe in ourselves before we can look around for forgiveness from others and believe in others.

I could go on and on about this production and the cast and crew, but I recommend you go see it for yourself. This authentically raw performance by SMTD is one that will forever be stuck in my heart as I continue to wrestle with the moral, philosophical, theological, and psychological problems this humorous and dramatic masterpiece poses and this cast so wonderfully performed .

PREVIEW: The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess can be considered the quintessential American opera of the 20th century. This particular performance is special, however, because it would be showcasing the fruits of the SMTD’s Gershwin Initiative for the first time. George Gershwin died prematurely at 38 and left a trail of hard-to-read handwritten scores that often led to inconsistent musical interpretation. The Gershwin Initiative is a conservation project that aims to analyze and reproduce Gershwin’s work in the way he would’ve wanted it to be shown. Porgy and Bess will be including classics such as “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Summertime” (listen to an amazing Al Jarreau cover here)  and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (I played this for an ABRSM piano exam).

Porgy and Bess will be performed on Saturday February 17 in the historic Hill Auditorium.

REVIEW: Edges

College is a time for doing stupid things, they say. And having done more than my fair share of them myself, I can attest to the highs and lows of adulting. But at least I learned a little about myself in the process.

That’s the feeling Pacek and Paul — Michigan students themselves when they wrote the show — knew all too well. And it’s the feeling Edges hits right on the head.

Edges is more a song cycle than a full musical with a plot and fleshed-out characters, a show that feels more like an intimate confessional than a Broadway spectacle. Penny Seats’ staging did justice to that. Kerrytown Concert House is literally a converted house, adding to the idea that these characters were more than just written constructs — they could have been any of us.

The first half of the show was set up almost like a group therapy session. The only sets were a pair of stools, and when it was each character’s turn to sing, they would take a stool and tell their story as the other actors watched from the audience. This worked with the material of the show, but at the same time, some of the actors sat on the right side of the stage, where there were no audience members and where the majority of the audience couldn’t see. I don’t want to fault the company for working within the confines of their space, but this setup annoyed me slightly throughout, as the actors would be turned to the side at times singing to the other characters, making them hard to hear.

Edges operates in two halves — essentially, falling in love and falling out of love. After the opening number (a quintessential “I want” song about being afraid to be who you really are), various characters took their turn singing about all of love’s messy parts. The songs themselves were intensely relatable, but adding to that was the fact that the characters are not given names, adding to the idea that they could be any of us.

One highlight was “I Hmm You” — one of the few songs in the first half sung by two characters — which was equal parts awkward and delightful. The actors executed perfectly what it was like to be a 20-something in love.

But Edges had its share of emotional numbers as well, my favorite of which was “Lying There.” The song, about lying next to the person you love, unable to sleep wondering if they feel the same way, was resonant and heartfelt.

The show’s shift happened at “The Facebook Song,” the first ensemble number since the opener. “The Facebook Song” was hilarious (even if slightly outdated — the number one way you can tell this show was written in 2005 is that Facebook was not only the go-to social network for college-aged kids, it was still called “the Facebook”) and the choreography — where each character held up a cardboard Facebook icon and turned it over to reveal certain postings — only added to the song’s comedy. However, I also felt that the song almost didn’t belong in the show. The other numbers, while not necessarily connected, showed a clear arc, but “The Facebook Song” seemed to not fit in with that arc. It seemed almost as if it were in the show as a marker of sorts between the first half and second half. However, “The Facebook Song” brought down the house and for good reason, so I’m loathe to say it didn’t belong.

In the second half, the audience learns that the relationships set up in the first half haven’t been going well, as the various characters come back onstage and sing an array of breakup songs that are at times hilarious and heartfelt. Actor Emily Manuell — who nailed the emotionally-resonant “Lying There” in the first half — was given a complete change of pace in “In Short,” a number about all the ways she wished the person that once kept her awake would just die. She nailed the comedic timing of the piece, another showstopper that left me laughing out loud.

The show wrapped up with another ensemble number where the characters come together saying they’re ready to be loved again. They’ll likely go through all the same feelings again, but at least they’ll be better for it. And that’s where the show packs its real punch.

At times, Edges was almost painfully relatable, eliciting uncomfortable laughter and the kind of awkwardness that’s funny because it’s real.

That’s how you know they nailed it.

PREVIEW: You For Me For You

You For Me For You is renowned playwright Mia Chung’s debut play, which details the story of two sisters from North Korea who are separated upon attempting to escape. The one who manages to escape flees to New York City, while the remaining sister is left behind. Praised by The Independent as “an exhilarating, surreal roll through both North Korea and American society… a brilliantly imaginative journey not to be missed,” You For Me For You is a play that I am excited to attend. The play is directed by Priscilla Lindsay and presented in collaboration with the Nam Center for Korean Studies.

You For Me For You will be shown at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre; the last two available showtimes are February 17 at 8PM and February 18 at 2 PM. Tickets for students are $12 with ID, and can be purchased at the League Ticket Office (this play is also included in the previous Passport to the Arts!).

Image credits: Scott Suchman