From May 25 to June 4, the Performing Arts Theater was filled with laughter and tears during performances of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” the final full-length play of UC Santa Barbara’s Theater and Dance 2022-2023 season.
Upon entering the Performing Arts Theater, the audience was greeted with an incredibly intricate set, something that received a lot of praise from various audience members and was a topic of conversation as people waited excitedly for the show to start. The design team disregarded the typical courtroom look that this play is usually staged with and swapped it for an abandoned pool in which a courtroom was created in the ruins. The attention to detail for the entire set was incredible, with little weeds growing out of the makeshift cracks in the ground and an intentional layer of filth to make the space seem decrepit and bleak. This space was supposed to represent “Hope,” a section of purgatory where those who want to stand trial for the future of their afterlife in hopes of receiving a better sentence go but few accomplish this goal, thus creating the perfect energy for such a place.
This highly detailed set was no easy feat to keep track of, with Stage Manager Trinity Wicklund explaining the difficulties of having so many small pieces on stage:
“During rehearsals and throughout our technical process, the scenic design team was constantly adding and changing the different elements. As they shifted things, I had to make sure my crew was on top of it, making sure that they had everything noted down exactly the way the designers wanted them. Every single thing they add to the set has to be in the same exact position every time we run the show or we run the risk of injuring our actors because they have memorized their paths and many of the scenic elements are used as props and moved by actors during the run as well.”
This show was definitely an example of how many hands are working backstage, with every single different team, whether it being costumes, lighting or set, having to be incredibly aware of all the small details in order to do their best job.
Reflecting on the production as a whole and how it has helped her become more familiar with difficult productions, Wickland explained how “Keeping track of all of the changes made throughout this production has definitely made for an interesting challenge that I think has really helped me grow as a stage manager trying to move into the professional world.”
The play itself takes place somewhere between heaven and hell, a sort of purgatory where the rules of time and space don’t exactly seem to make any sense. The play puts Judas on trial, calling on all sorts of historical figures to either condemn or defend him while he lies unconscious and insentient, unaware of all the people fighting for him to have a place in Heaven. With characters like Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and Satan himself making appearances in the trial, combining humor and sincerity to ultimately make the audience reconsider the biblical morality tale of Judas and its implications.
Also upon walking in, the audience is also greeted with an actor laying in the bottom of this abandoned swimming pool, whom they later learn is Judas himself. Michael Seitz, the actor who played Judas, had been lying there since the doors had opened to let the audience in and continued to lie there until the first scene in which he actually speaks.
This play as a whole was a true test for Seitz as an actor. Despite the play quite literally having Judas’ name in the title, he only has about four scenes in which he speaks for the entirety of the two-hour, 45-minute play. Most of his time is instead spent on stage idly, having to actively listen and be engaged while also maintaining his character. When discussing the preparation for a character like this, he explained, “I prepared real hard, I’ve been training roughly 8 hours every night for the last 28 years, so I hope it paid off. It is brutal. I have ADHD so I constantly want to be moving, but instead I get to be left alone with my thoughts for a couple of hours. It takes an insane amount of focus to be that still for that long.”
Another unique aspect of this show was how many biblical characters were present and how that changes the preparation for the play. Not only did the actors have to do their normal preparations to understand the characters they were going to be playing, but they also had to have an understanding for the historical context and references in order to have a grasp on the play.
For Seitz, this meant becoming incredibly familiar with Judas as a biblical character and also having a more nuanced understanding of him, beyond his typical role in the morality tale he usually occupies. While talking about his preparation for the role, he explained, “You want to take account of what the script tells you in the descriptions of your character, but it’s also smart to understand where those traits originally derive from to influence the writing. So, I got to go figure out why Judas was perceived this way first and then make him as human as I could.”
Similarly for Abbs Stoiber, the actor who played Jesus, “Preparing for Jesus was a unique process regarding the historical and religious influence he has.” However, Stoiber also touched on how they were able to still find an aspect of relation with the character of Jesus despite the religious implications of playing a character like this:
“However, despite the historical contexts, I was still able to find a lot of personalization with Jesus. Once I had the research and historical context under my belt, I was able to approach him like any other character I’ve explored and made him personal to me.”
Playing characters like these cannot be a simple task for these actors, and they are incredible to watch on stage as they display their talents so precisely and effectively.
The final scene of the show concludes with a heartbreaking moment that left the entire audience feeling heavy with consideration on the relationship with or at least knowledge of religion they previously had. The scene portrays the only interaction between Jesus and Judas of the entire show, with Jesus begging Judas to listen and let himself be loved while Judas refuses to believe that Jesus is actually there speaking with him and argues with him, accusing him of abandoning him in hell. This moment closes with Judas suddenly snapping back into the comatose state he had existed in for the entirety of the show, with Jesus left to just watch over him lovingly, hoping for another chance at communication at some point in the future. This is an incredibly emotionally charged scene that made the audience question their preconceived ideas of the relationship between these two characters, and Stoiber explained how “Every time Michael and I perform this scene, we always find new realizations about their relationship and dig further into the layers of hurt, betrayal and anger.”
Overall, this final scene can be summarized as a lesson in forgiveness as explained by Stoiber:
“All Jesus wants is for Judas to join him in heaven, but he understands that Judas has to forgive himself before he can move on, and all Jesus can do is be there for him.”
However, as Steiz stated when asked for any final takeaways from the show, “Forgiveness is hard. This show raises a lot of questions about forgiveness not only for others but for ourselves.”