Dignity Players’ Damned Good Judas

Salvation or damnation? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Sounds like heavy stuff, but the trial of history’s most notorious traitor, Judas Iscariot, is the funniest show of the summer: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, playing through August 14 at Dignity Players of Annapolis.

This is Purgatory, after all, where everyone bides time and anything can happen. Where two and three-quarter hours fly by like a nun’s confession while 15 players portray 26 personalities from the Gospels to the ghetto, with not a weak link among them. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 1995 dramedy is a complex concept here delivered with minimal props and special effects. And it’s a must-see.

This case is so hot that Judge Littlefield (Danny Brooks) refuses to hear it until the defense attorney, savvy and sexy Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Alicia Sweeney), secures a writ signed by God himself. Prosecuting attorney El Fayoumy (Dean Davis) objects, but only as ineffectually as he flirts with every skirt that enters the courtroom. Davis’ macho, Spanish sycophant is just one of many unforgettable characters animating this absurd proceeding.

The hilarity begins with St. Monica (Brenda Mack), patron nagger and profane Big Mama to whom Henrietta Iscariot (Sue Struve) petitions for divine intervention on her son’s behalf. Monica knows about reprobate sons, having had a devil of a time raising Augustine. No sooner has her language shocked the audience into realizing this is not your grandma’s biblical tale than Henrietta converts their laughter to tears with a mother’s heartbreak. Such is the pendulum swing of emotions wrought by a parade of biblical history’s greats into the witness stand.

Lesley Miller is hysterical as Mother Theresa, a discredited, deaf money-grubber on the fast-track to sainthood, prone to quote simple folk like her Irish confidante Sister Glenna (the splendid Tanya Davis). There’s St. Matthew and the kvetching high priest Caiaphus, in modern prayer shawl and yarmulke, played by Brooks in an impressive tour de force of triple roles. Jason Vaughan is brilliant as the persnickety Sigmund Freud and later as a Doubting Thomas who admits his ongoing contempt for Judas.

There’s the foxy Mary Magdalene (Davis) and the gangsta-apostle Simon the Zealot (James Jager, also the Bailiff). Nick Beschen as St. Peter’s voice of reason and, as St. Mathias, a bittersweet glimpse into Judas’ maturation from childhood on. Hands down, though, the most memorable is Chris Haley’s Pontius Pilate as a jive-talkin’ Big Kahuna who pleads the Fifth.

Then there’s Judas (Stephen Michael Deininger), the catatonic skinhead who drools in his wheelchair through most of the play, only to emerge as a haunted soul with a basically good heart. He’s so messed up he doesn’t recognize his drinking buddy as Satan (Tom Newbrough) and can’t discuss the “epiphanot” that tortures his conscience. Newbrough’s Satan is cosmopolitan, crude and a master of exploiting insecurities: the perfect foil to Eric Lund’s Jesus, who emanates the love he proclaims in Hebrew and English on his T-shirt.

When all is said and done, though, it is the director, Frank B. Moorman, who has the last and most resonating words as jury foreman and everyman Butch Honeywell. Moorman’s phenomenal acting talent has been one of Dignity Players’ aces in the hole since the company’s first production, and this role is no exception. When he confesses to Judas the ordinary commonplace sin that crushes his soul, it is a heart-breaking reminder that all God’s children are equally prone to failure and equally deserving of his forgiveness — if only they can embrace it. That is the crux of Guiris’ message, delivered loud and clear in language everyone can understand.

There is so much to recommend this show, and nothing of substance to criticize. The obscene language should keep you away if you are priggish. If you had hoped to bring the kids for enlightenment, don’t. But do book a sitter and a seat. Better yet, come on closing night and enjoy a talk-back session with the cast, including Jesus and Satan.

Playing thru Aug. 14 at 7:30pm Th; 8pm FSa at Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Rd., Annapolis. $20 FSa; $15 Th: 410-266-8044 x127; www.dignityplayers.org.