The scene opens on a panoramic view of the Jerusalem skyline as if from a tower window. It looks ancient at first – the crumbling stone temples and cathedrals and gilded cupolas are what first catch the eye – but then you notice the high rises as well. Pontius Pilate (Craig Smith) surveys his realm, equipped with a crisp white suit and the voice and ego of a pompous Western colonizer, and launches into musing on the mob below. Robert Patrick’s Judas, we are told right off the bat, will be full of modern themes and ideas.
The story is familiar to anyone who might ever have cracked open a King James Bible or seen a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In Patrick’s Judas, Jesus of Nazareth (Jeffrey Marc Alkins), a Jewish street preacher said to be the Son of God, begins to preach at the age of thirty in the kingdom of Judea, a Roman-occupied territory. Meanwhile, as the young prophet struggles with the role that everyone wants him to fill and the divine voice in his head, political and religious clashes build up to the breaking point around him.
Patrick recasts each character with modern-day sympathies. Pilate is the prefect – something like a governor – over Judea, ruling in the name of the Roman emperor, but he is also a philosopher and a believer in authoritarian ethics who delights in passing on his knowledge to the next generation. Jesus and his family are not divine beings, as one might imagine, but persecuted believers hoping for deliverance from oppression. And the eponymous Judas (Josh Tyson) is a dedicated Jewish scholar being groomed by Pilate for Roman politics – but when he meets Jesus, every doubt he’d ever had begins to tear him apart.
There is a lot of potential in Judas. Jeffrey Marc Alkins gives a calming and dignified performance as Jesus. Elise Stone as Mary, Jesus’s mother, embodies well the role of the slightly manic, pre-modern Jewish nationalist that Patrick carved out for her. And the rapport between the aristocratic assistant Klautus (Josh Moser) and Pilate (Craig Smith) is endearing. The show also broaches more secular philosophies and ideas that aren’t often associated when it comes to talking about the Gospel – an admirably large and potentially controversial undertaking. And the wall-to-wall graphics depicting the skyline of modern-day Jerusalem as if from a glass tower high above the city is an eye-catching detail. But ultimately, the pieces don’t exactly come together. The graphics and the philosophizing both tend towards hokey – for example, the sky turns violent red as King Herod is fictitiously murdered in the street, and Pilate rails against Jesus in a predictable (and rambling) showdown between reason and faith. Much of the dialogue sprawls into exhaustive soliloquizing that feels, at times, a little contrived.
Patrick’s script is in desperate need of editing, though the characters are very well cast (if not under-rehearsed, in some cases). Still, even with somewhat intriguing characters and somewhat intriguing themes, the show fails to be compelling. Ultimately, the actors give it a valiant go, but it doesn’t keep this play from tripping over its own ambition. This Judas is no superstar.