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2010 theater preview plus ‘Judas Iscariot’ review, news

Saints and Sinners

THE SHOW: “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” a 2005 trial drama/comedy/fantasy by Stephen Adly Guirgis, presented by Triad Productions

Judas is there. And his mother, Henrietta. Also Mary Magdalene and St. Monica. And Jesus takes the stage. Even Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud are called to the stand. And Satan has his say. Certainly a trial to remember.

The setting is Purgatory and a soul is at stake. Does Judas deserve to spend eternity in Hell? Or is there another side to his story? What, really, are the parameters and limits of forgiveness?

Acclaimed New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (author of “Jesus Hopped the A-Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” and “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings,” all excellently presented by local theaters), has clearly done his homework. There’s a lot of Biblical scholarship on display here, and also plenty of speculation, fantasy, rough language, downtown sensibility and downright humor. The play had its premiere in 2005 at The Public Theatre, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is, with Guirgis, co-founder of New York’s LAByrinth Theatre Company.

A wildly disparate array of witnesses - past and present, fictional and historical - are called to the stand. The provocative, often contradictory responses, highlight the controversies inherent in conventional perspectives of the New Testament’s Baddest Boy, and point up the challenges of his era, the choices each person involved was forced to make, and the process by which the Bible was written. One of the play’s most challenging questions is: Can we forgive ourselves for our trespasses? And the most mystifying: If God is truly all-forgiving, why was Judas condemned to Hell without reprieve?

The prosecuting attorney in the Judas case is a sleazy womanizer, Yusef El Fayoumy (Kris Zarif, losing killer comic lines by racing through them). Arguing for the defense is a very attractive woman, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Samantha Ginn, striking, assertive and convincing). Both characters have considerable personal problems, but that doesn’t get in the way of their hard-hitting cross-examinations. Particularly intriguing are the arguments from Pontius Pilate (Merrick McCartha) and Caiaphas the Elder (Charles Peters).

In some sense, the success of the language- and idea-rich play rests on a uniformly strong cast. Triad Productions, an edgy young company that focuses on youth-friendly work and local premieres (this is its fourth), certainly has the energy, enthusiasm, chutzpah and conviction. But the ensemble is uneven, both in dramatic experience and acting acumen. There is an overall tendency toward insufficient projection, clarity and speaking rate.

Still, the result is satisfying, thought-provoking, intense, and at times, very funny. The director, Stephen Schmitz, who acquitted himself well as an actor in Triad’s production of “Red Light Winter,” has assembled a large cast - 15 actors playing 24 characters. Those who anchor the proceedings keep us riveted. James Cota is anguished and agonized as the catatonic title character. Patrick Kelly has an aptly ethereal quality as Jesus of Nazareth. Scott Andrew Amiotte is especially tasty as a hard-edged, low-life Satan, skulking ominously around in a red silk shirt. In a brief appearance, Anna Rebek is gripping as Judas’ mother, and Joseph Tyrer’s play-ending monologue, as a faithless and doomed modern husband, is forceful in making the whole historical disquisition persuasively relevant.

It doesn’t matter what your religion or religious beliefs may be. This is less about Judas than about the potential for acceptance in each of us - for each other and ourselves. In this age of “truthiness,” it’s comforting to hear the words we all should live by, even if they spew from Satan’s lips: “I don’t believe in good and bad. What I believe in is truth.” Hard to come by, elusive to capture, but always worth the pursuit.

THE LOCATION: Triad Productions at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., downtown. (619) 241-2623; www.triadprod.com

THE DETAILS: Tickets: $13-$20. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., , Sunday at 5 p.m., through January 30. Special Industry Night on Monday 1/11 and Pay What You Can performance on Sunday 1/17.

ON THE HORIZON: What’s coming up on San Diego stages in 2010?

As the year kicks off, another new page is turned in the theater playbook. It’s exhilarating to look ahead and see what’s coming to local theaters. 2009 was such a strong theater year, despite the sagging economy, that there are high expectations for 2010. Not that the economy will be any better, but theater artists are eternally optimistic, impassioned and ready for action. So we can expect some exciting work, new and old, to come down the pike.

MUSIC

For the musical lover, there will be much to applaud. Broadway/San Diego is bringing in the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2008, “In the Heights,” set in New York’s Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, with a score grounded in hip-hop, salsa, meringue and soul music (7/27-8/1). An earlier “get” than usual, and much anticipated. Coming up this month, California Youth Conservatory has snagged the first local production of the teen tuner, “13,” and its mega-talented composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (”Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “Songs for a New World”) will be in town this week to work with the cast (1/16-1/31).

Cygnet Theatre is presenting “Sweeney Todd,” my Sondheim favorite (3/18-4/25).

North Coast Repertory Theatre is premiering a new version of “Little Women,” being billed as “a play with music,” adapted by Jacqueline Goldfinger, who created their delightful annual “Christmas Carol” (2/20-3/14). That production also brings back Kirsten Brandt, former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, to direct. A very welcome return!

Coronado Playhouse is taking a big leap with “Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party,” based on a cynical 1926 poem about New York debauchery during Prohibition, written by former New Yorker editor Joseph Moncure March. The intriguing, challenging, jazz-fueled, tough-as-nails show won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical of the 2000 season, and has only been done locally at Torrey Pines High School, in 2004. (1/29-3/6)

The La Jolla Playhouse hasn’t yet announced its next season, and on the heels of “Bonnie and Clyde” and the Broadway opening of “Memphis,” there may be another musical in store.

Meanwhile, at the Old Globe, the latest stage creation of Tony and Grammy Award-winner Duncan Sheik (composer of the magnificent, groundbreaking “Spring Awakening”), “Whisper House,” is about to open, preceded by an intimate concert by Sheik, with special guest David Poe (1/11). The new show is about a young boy, a remote lighthouse, ghosts, strange music and embracing the unknown (1/13-2/21).

Also on deck at the Globe is the contemporary musical drama, “Street Lights” which, using hip-hop, R&B and pop music, tells of inner city youth fighting to save their high school music program. Continuing the Globe’s innovative outreach program, which began last year with “Kingdom,” the show premieres first at Lincoln High School and then comes back to Balboa Park, to the main theater (2/20-28). Later this season (7/14-8/22), the Globe premieres another Broadway-bound show, “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” based on the 1964 movie musical that turned Robin Hood and his merry band into Chicago thugs.

DRAMA

If drama’s your thing, there’ll be plenty of it (probably onstage and off!) this year. A few plays that I’m looking forward to: “The Piano Lesson” at Cygnet Theatre, part of August Wilson’s stunning, 10-play cycle chronicling the African American experience, decade by decade (1/30-2/28). Cygnet did a wonderful job with Wilson’s “Fences” in 2008. New Village Arts will bring Tennessee Williams to town (so to speak), with “Summer and Smoke,” a steamy story set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi (5/29-6/13).

North Coast Repertory revisits a classic, too, with Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” a scathing commentary on the ever-timely topics of morality and hypocrisy (4/10-5/10). Mira Costa College is taking a stab at the challenging Bertolt Brecht play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” a potent, anti-realist attack on injustice and social inequality (4/23-5/2). Mira Costa and North Coast Rep are collaborating (a pleasant and ever-more-common occurrence in local theater) for “The Tempest,” starring local favorite Jonathan McMurtry (2/25-3/3).

This weekend, Ion theatre opens David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” an “epic acid-trip through ’80s L.A.” (1/7-30). Another fascinating drama to come is the one non-Shakespeare part of the Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare Festival: “The Madness of George III,” directed by Adrian Noble, this summer’s new Festival artistic director.

And speaking of Shakespeare, Bardophiles should be sated by: the Globe’s “King Lear” and “Taming of the Shrew” this summer; The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s year-full of 10th anniversary celebrational events; and Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s second season of full productions and “Free Will” Shakespeare readings.

COMEDY

We all need our comic relief, and there’s never a shortage of comedies in town. The best, in my opinion, have a little darkness and depth, too. In that category, consider: “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (2/18-3/7), by those Latino L.A. wildmen - and a workshop of CC member Herbert Siguenza’s solo play, “A Weekend With Pablo Picasso” (3/21-4/21), sure to be at least partly comical, if he’s doing it; “Speech and Debate” at Diversionary Theatre (3/25-4/11), about three small-town teen misfits who are linked by a local sex scandal; “Boom,” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (1/9-1/31), a sort of futuristic farce about young people, bombs, the end of the world, and a plan for its re-population; the late Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Heidi Chronicles,” concerning the coming of age, feminism, and disillusionment of a young American woman in the 1980s, at New Village Arts (4/3-25); “John Leguizamo: Diary of a Madman,” the first Page to Stage work-in-progress at the La Jolla Playhouse, featuring the funnyman of stage and screen (3/4-14); and opening this weekend at Moxie Theatre’s new Rolando space, Lisa Loomer’s “Expecting Isabel,” about the trials and tribulations of trying to have or adopt a baby (1/7-2/7).

Many companies haven’t announced their full seasons yet, so there’s plenty more to come. But this should whet the appetite of any theaterlover. Bon appétit!!

NEWS AND VIEWS

… Passing the torch: Thirteen-year-old Becca Myers has a leading role in the California Youth Conservatory’s San Diego premiere of the Jason Robert Brown musical, “13.” The show’s about friendship and acceptance in teens, as it charts a young boy’s impending Bar Mitzvah in a new town, far from his longtime friends. Myers is playing Patrice, a school outsider like the central character. Her role was created on Broadway by a family friend, Allie Trimm, former San Diego actor, who appeared at Lamb’s Players Theatre in the “Festival of Christmas” in 2005 and came back to star as Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden” in 2007. The “13″ production has two alternating casts, Gold and Blue; Myers is in the Gold cast. At the Lyceum Theatre, January 16-31. www.cyctheatre.webs.com

… Dramatically Operatic: San Diego Opera and XLNC1 are teaming up to launch an hour-long radio program that will precede each upcoming Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The 17 segments of “Opera Matters” will be hosted by SDO’s Geisel Director of Education, Dr. Nicolas Reveles. The first show airs at 9 a.m. on January 16, before the Met broadcast of “Carmen.” XLNC1 will also be the home of San Diego Opera’s 2010 season radio broadcasts, which air on Sunday at 7 p.m., a week after each opera closes. Listen at 104.9 FM, or online at www.xlnc1.org

… Patté on a Platter: Feast on a smorgasbord of local talent. Attend The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, a gala community celebration that honors the Best of the Best of San Diego theatermakers. Monday, January 18, 2010. Tickets are at www.thepattefoundation.org

PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” - rich, deep, funny, provocative (in concepts and language)
Triad Productions at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through 1/30

To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, into the SDNN Search box.

Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.