When "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" opens Friday at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis, it will mark the second time that Rus Roberts has directed the drama: He helmed a 2011 production at Albany Civic Theater.
Roberts estimates he's seen the show some 20 times, and he can't put a number on how many times he's read the play.
But the play always has something to fresh to show him: "I'm still getting new stuff out of it," he said in a recent interview with The E.
The Albany production, he said, took more of a black-box approach, so Roberts has opened up the staging of the show a bit for the Majestic stage.
But Stephen Adly Guirgis' play, which imagines a court case in purgatory to determine the ultimate fate of Judas Iscariot — in the Bible, the man who betrayed Christ to the authorities — still bristles with the same ideas and provocative questions that it had in Roberts' 2011 production, and when it debuted off-Broadway in 2005.
"What does Judas Iscariot's truth have to do with my truth?" Roberts said. "What is it that you believe and why do you believe that way?"
The play's questions aren't all based in religion, though, Roberts noted: Issues of despair and forgiveness never are far from the playwright's mind.
The show's central conceit is that Judas has been condemned to hell, but God has ordered a new trial. The trial, Roberts noted, takes place in purgatory, and purgatory tends to change with the times: In this production, Roberts has imagined it as sort of a dead-end alley, exactly the sort of place where hope finally might curdle into despair. (A character in the show notes that, "now, purgatory is a place of litigation. ... Litigation is the new order of the day."
The play uses flashbacks to an imagined childhood, and Guirgis also summons a bevy of unexpected expert witnesses: Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and Satan take the stand at various times. (In the original Broadway production, Eric Bogosian played the king of hell; here, Patrick Chappell takes on the juicy role.)
Other cast members include Kevin Kelly as Judas, Majestic veteran Don Taco as the grouchy judge, Madison Shirley as the defense attorney and Robert Best as the prosecutor.
Roberts said his new production works to flesh out the characters to give them a bit of additional individuality; St. Thomas (Dinee Rae), for example, is portrayed as a skateboarder. The new production also will employ projections.
Roberts also said he took the time in rehearsals to break his 19-person cast into smaller groups for three weeks of table work, at which the director and his actors could ponder the script at depth and ask questions.
The table work was useful, Roberts said, for his actors to "carry the emotional weight of what's being dealt with," and he cast the show with that in mind.
Even though the play deals with heavy themes, Roberts said it's also quite funny in places, although he issued this warning: It's filled with profanity and might not be suitable for younger audiences.
Roberts is planning a talk-back session after the first matinee, on Sunday, April 7, at which audience members can ask questions of the cast and director and discuss the show. If Roberts' experience with the play is any indication, there should be plenty to talk about.