Sympathy for the devil

Posted on 08 Oct 2007 at 6:49pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones – Staff Writer

“‘Dracula’ and “‘Judas’ show that evil is not necessarily as evil does

The great dilemma of local theater is the paradox of familiarity and saleability: You want to put on shows with enough name-recognition to get butts in the seats but there are only so many productions of “Our Town” a person can see in a lifetime. Knowing how a story ends before it begins can breed contempt.

So kudos to ICT MainStage for taking a warhorse story and mounting a stylish and daring production. Even if we’ve seen it before, it doesn’t feel like it.

There are countless stage adaptations of “Dracula,” Bram Stoker’s brooding novel about the unholy Transylvanian, and after more than a century, finding enthusiasm for another version can be difficult. But Steven Deitz adaptation, directed with rapturous vigor and assurance by Bruce A. Coleman, is enough to get your blood racing. And as everyone knows, “Dracula” is all about the blood.

The tale is part of the Zeitgeist: Undead count (Nikolai David Kiselov) lures British lawyer Jonathan Harker (William Lanier) to his Romanian castle, tricks him into carting him to England and begins to feast on Harker’s friends, including his fianc? Mina (Esther Selgrath) and her friend Lucy (Julie Reinagel). There are bats and fangs and stakes through the heart. Lots of shadows too.

And sex.

“Dracula” has always had its heavy metaphorical side, especially equating bad-boys with sex, but Coleman’s production takes it further than most. The entire show bursts with homoeroticism it’s practically orgasmic. Lucy and Mina’s playful pajama party; Harker’s near constant shirtlessness; even a modern ballet of muscle men that kicks off Act 2 there’s more stroked flesh and long, soap-opera glances in two hours than in an entire week of daytime TV.

Coleman’s lively but moody interpretation imbues even the most predictable elements with freshness. (The fight choreography by Oscar Steele is probably the best I’ve ever seen in Dallas.) Coleman’s large set, framed with cartoonishly well-toned Gothic gargoyles, moves fluidly to create a nearly cinematic experience.

Unfortunately, many of the other performances don’t measure up to the other elements. Kiselov gives his Dracula exaggerated hand gestures and an impenetrable accent that suggested Frankenberry would lumber on stage with a quart of milk at any second. He’s like a silent German expressionist film that talks like Jim Carrey.

Lanier rushes through his lines in Act 1, but he gets better, as does Greg Jackson’s Van Helsing, who can at times be as difficult to understand as Dracula. Selgrath is charming.

But Coleman teases out of John de los Santos one of the most unreserved, intense and broadly comic performances of the year. As the bug-eating Renfield, de los Santos turns a supporting role into the star attraction. He’s deliciously sanguinary in a madcap way. If only Dracula himself was this hot-blooded.

If “Godspell” was the New Testament as told by hippies, then think of Stephen Adly Giurgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” now on stage from Risk Theater Initiative, as the gospel according to yuppies. It plays on the conventions of pop-culture storytelling: It’s a “Law & Order”-style courtroom drama complete with hip-hop trash talkin’ ‘hos (Ginger Goldman, playing Ste. Monica) and fey, metrosexual pimp daddies (Wilbur Penn, playing Lucifer “Lu” as the judge calls him), with references to “The Passion of the Christ,” “The DaVinci Code” and Eddie Izzard. But it filters biblical figures through post-modern sensibilities.

Basically, it’s a comedy about faith. And quite a good one.
The title and subject matter make it sound drier than it is. “Last Days” has many wildly funny moments, sandwiched between a bullet-point catechism about the inherent conflicts in Christianity. It’s thought-provoking fun.

In the afterlife, even the damned are entitled to bring appeals in the purgatory courts. That’s where Fabiana Cunningham (Jennifer Pasion) files a writ on behalf of Judas Iscariot (Dan Forsythe), hoping to get him out of the deepest pit of hell.

The judge (Bruce R. Elliott) a country-fried Southern good ol’ boy of the Rod Steiger variety stalls all her motions.

Who could imagine the most notoriously traitorous villain in human history getting off? (Apparently, he missed the O.J. Simpson trial.) Eventually, she wins the right to put on evidence that even Judas deserves forgiveness, and the witness list includes Mother Teresa (Goldman), Judas’ mom (Lulu Ward), St. Matthew (Beau Trujillo), Caiaphas (Elliott) and the devil himself.

About half of the play is set in the courtroom, which TV writers from “Perry Mason” to “Boston Legal” know makes for inherently juicy conflict. Wit and parry, pro and con, point/counterpoint Cunningham and the toady prosecutor El-Fayoumy (Chad Gowen Spear) make grand cross-examinations. First we see Mother Teresa as the beatified virgin she is; then we learn what a right-wing nut she could be. Every argument is basically a draw.

Which is intellectually fascinating, dramatically sufficient but also ultimately repetitive. Guirgis interrupts the trial with scenes from Judas’ past, monologues from hambone angels to various apostles, all building to a climatic revelation about the nature of evil analyzed through contemporary standards.

But when the finale arrives, it fizzles. Whether it’s director Tom Parr IV of Guirgis himself, the production runs out of steam; the last scene seems to go on forever, nearly obliterating all the enthusiasm you’ve sustained for the previous two-and-a-half hours.

The script is padded anyway. Spear’s sniveling grandiose gestures, like a Cairo bazaar merchant meets an ambulance chaser, are wonderful. But the sycophantic excesses begin to overtake the narrative. Every sequence feels about 30 seconds too long, which collectively adds half an hour to the running time. It’s like a terrific workshop play that needs a final polish.

Still, for those interested in philosophy and theater, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” has enough good of both. It’s like a church service that allows a talk-back.

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