On the evening of Good Friday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, crowds gathering in the lobby faced a curious Easter-time decision.
On one side of the theater, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was on view in one of several Easter-weekend screenings.
On the other, Road Less Traveled Productions was opening its own passionate play, Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot."
Though their narratives overlap, these two pieces of drama come from diametrically opposed positions. Gibson's film, in all its searing violence and its adherence to an unwavering theology, is an endorsement of a blind and dangerous brand of faith.
Guirgis' wildly funny play, on the other hand -- no less reverent in its way, no less visceral in its impact -- is a direly needed reminder of the place where faith and intelligence intersect.
Though Guirgis' characters drop F-bombs left and right and wax obscene on topics from sexual endowments to cocaine binges, make no mistake: This is the Gospel according to Guirgis, a staunch anti-Gibsonite and the closest thing to a latter-day saint in the theater.
This production, directed by Scott Behrend with a keen understanding of its theological underpinnings and a deep sensitivity to its audience, is a major achievement for Road Less Traveled. It brings together a cast of uncommon talent and diversity to deliver a tale whose themes are immediately relevant to Western New York's faithful and its lost sheep alike.
The show is set largely in purgatory, in a courtroom inside a dilapidated church that looks for all the world like St. Matthew on Buffalo's East Side or St. Barbara in Lackawanna. An exasperated judge played by Jim Maloy begrudgingly takes on the case of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who, according to the Gospels, betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities for a mere 30 pieces of silver and later hung himself out of shame.
Lisa Vitrano plays defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham against Brian Riggs' thoroughly amusing, wildly over-the-top portrayal of Yusef El-Fayoumy, the sycophantic prosecutor who, aside from Satan (the perfectly slick and confident David Oliver), gets most of Guirgis' best lines.
In the process of the trial, we meet characters as diverse as a ghetto-version of Saint Monica (played with incredible sass and foul-mouthed appeal by Adrienne Lewis), a world-weary Mother Teresa (Victoria Perez), the much-maligned Caiaphas the Elder (Maloy) and St. Simon the Zealot (Barry Williams) among many others. There are spirited debates about free will, about the accuracy of the Gospels, about the possibility of redemption, not just for Judas, but for everyone.
The play drags significantly in its second act, and some speeches, especially from Aziza, are drawn out to the point of lectures. But it's well worth sitting through a few speeches and lengthy asides to get to the provocative center of this play, voiced in a terse and loaded argument between Aziza and Mother Teresa.
"It must be nice to have all the answers," Vitrano's Aziza says to the beatified sister (who was not as saintly as most of us imagine).
"It must be hard to have only questions," Mother Teresa shoots back.
True that. This play is Guirgis' attempt to rediscover that lost holy place between blind, Gibsonian faith and the deeply intellectual tradition of the Jesuits. For Guirgis, as for many others at a time when religious powers that be seem to be growing less and less tolerant, that search couldn't be more important.
> Theater Review
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Presented through May 22 by Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 629-3069 or visit www.roadlesstraveled- productions.org.