Looking inside ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’

In just six weeks, the School of Dramatic Arts put on a show of biblical proportions.

Devin Craig and Krosby João Roza gave passionate performances of their respective roles as Yusef El-Fayoumy and Satan on the opening night of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” (Craig Schwartz)

Putting on a work of theater in just over a month is no easy task, but that’s exactly the challenge the School of Dramatic Arts faced when it scheduled its first performance of  “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” With an opening date of Sept. 29 at the Bing Theatre, the company had just over six weeks to put a sprawling tale onto USC’s largest stage.

“I’ve never seen so much hard work put into such little time before,” said stage manager Emi Yoshino, a senior majoring in stage management. “You can tell that the actors put their heart and soul into this … Everyone involved in this project has done a tremendous job.”

As the title indicates, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” written by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, follows the story of the biblical figure himself, reimagining the well-known story of betrayal as a court case featuring the likes of Sigmund Freud and Satan as witnesses. This modern retelling felt “very forgiving” to assistant stage manager Talia Sinder, a sophomore majoring in stage management.

“[The play] takes a classic biblical story and reinterprets it,” Sinder said. “That’s a very interesting thing to watch and witness, regardless of someone’s religious background or what they know about these characters and biblical figures, because it portrays them in a way that you never would have thought.”

Megan Tomei, a graduate student studying acting, takes this idea of reinterpretation a step further. She argued that her character, Fabiana Cunningham, who acts as Judas’s lawyer in the court case, uses Judas as a “catalyst,” while in reality “fighting for [her] own redemptive story.” Tomei doesn’t even consider the play to be a religious narrative.

“Judas is synonymous with betrayal, and so what does that mean? Betrayal of self? Betrayal of others? I think that’s what it’s coming more at, rather than religion as a whole,” Tomei said. “It’s a story of love, of losing love and of losing faith, whether that’s faith in yourself or the people you love.”

The cast and crew offered up a wide variety of perspectives on how they pulled the show off with such a rapid turnaround. Tomei admitted that it was a “lesson in endurance,” and gave flowers to her cohort after opening night, an ensemble of master’s students that she explained had been acting together for more than two years now.

She’s certainly onto something there — from the comical performance of opposing lawyer Yusuf El-Fayoumy (Devin Craig) to an appropriately fiery Satan (Krosby João Roza), the third-year graduate students that made up much of the cast displayed passion and talent that kept the Bing Theatre quiet and enraptured.

Yoshino stressed that a key component for her crew on the play’s tight schedule was to “just communicate, communicate, communicate to everyone on the production team.”  She also made sure to check in with co-directors Natsuko Ohama and David Warshofsky nightly to ensure the production was running in accordance with their vision.

“Decisions being made had to happen at a very quick pace,” Sinder said.

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is the School of Dramatic Arts’ first production of the academic year, a status that Sinder thought was quite fitting.

“It’s very grand, and the design aspects experimented with the set in terms of not having a back wall,” Sinder said. “So our set just opens to the back wall of the theater, which is very cool … When you’re sitting here, it’s very much like, ‘Wow, this is a big piece of theater.’”

Ohama offered more insight into the herculean effort that brought this entire show together.

“Creating company spirit is how we’ve managed to do it in such a short time,” Ohama said. “We are inspired by them, and then we want to inspire them.”

Ohama’s confidence in her company goes beyond just personally motivating her, as she believes professional work is in their collective future.

“These actors are going to work and you’ll see them and become followers of their careers, I hope,” Ohama said.

The co-director was equally as reverent about the work they’ve collectively adapted, calling Stephen Adly Guirgis “the closest thing we have to Shakespeare in modern times.”

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” covers a lot of ground. To Ohama, it felt challenging, hilarious and upsetting all at once. Even Yoshino admitted that she was nervous about putting the production on in the first place. But when this 111-page play is in front of an enraptured audience, staged so grandly and powerfully, the hard work this cast and crew put into the production all comes together.

“There’s huge laughs and there’s huge heart. One minute you can go from weeping your eyes out to bellied over with laughter because it’s just ridiculous,” Tomei said. “If you want to see masterful theatre done hopefully really well and kickass, it’s this play … I feel like it speaks for itself when you come and see it.”

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is running at the Bing Theatre through Oct. 8.

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