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I’ve seen a few plays this season, staged at the venerable, time-honored locations, but none have had the visceral punch that The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, staged by the little troupe that could, Dona Ana Repertory Theater, leveled at its audience last night. A well-deserved standing ovation capped what had to be the most enthralling and deeply moving theatrical experience since that other renegade theater troupe, Scaffolding Theatre, staged Nine two years ago.

I have to admit, it was a bit of a hard sell. A brand-new troupe, staging an unknown off-Broadway play (written by Stephen Adly Guirgis) at an unlikely location – the outside stage at Picacho Peak Brewery. In July. It seemed like madness. And, yes, I do have to admit also that the first act didn’t really grab me, but that probably had more to do with the heat and the bugs, because what was happening on stage was fascinating and, despite a few uneven performances that were quickly overcome, curiously engaging.

I mention this for a reason. In my experience, asking an audience to endure anything beyond air-conditioned comfort, is a hard sell. I know. I’ve been there. But when the performance is so compelling that one is able to overlook discomforts and allow oneself to be transported to another place entirely, the true magic of theater is at play. Couple that with a highly controversial subject matter presented in an extraordinarily unorthodox way. Then strip away the artifice a theater environment provides. What you’re left with is a production that rises or falls on the strength of the story and the conviction of its performers. This production has that in spades.

How could it not? I mean, here are veteran performers like Autumn Gieb, Erin Wendorf, McKensi Karnes and the magnificent Richard Rundell, spewing expletives and pontificating alongside young up-and-comers Nick Check, Gina Demondo, Kerrigan Sivils and Noah Kelley unveiling a story both sacred and profane in which Judas Iscariot, the biblical traitor, is put on trial for his sins. All the while a stoic and unflinching Joseph Lopez stares catatonically into the audience as the eponymous Iscariot (no mean feat considering the many distractions), a riveting reminder of the reason for the proceedings. And honey, you haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed Gieb’s foul-mouthed, yet fierce St. Monica chewing scenery like a pro in that first act. Yet I still found myself wondering during the intermission, as I’m sure many did, “what’s the point here?”

That second act, however, turned the tide with explosive, tour de force performances that left me gobsmacked. Truly. The answer to my question was, “wait and see.” The point was coming and when it landed, it had the virtual impact of an emotional atomic bomb. Standouts were many. Performances were nuanced and utterly believeable, despite the odd predilection for street slang and on-stage transformations of the actors. When said performers were in their element, however, they were imposing and magnificent.

Of particular note were Wendorf as the defense attorney Cunningham who never once resorted to shrillness, yet completely captivated the audience with her relentless attacks on the witnesses parading across the stand. Gieb’s return as Satan was also unexpectedly audacious, owning the stage and facing down the other performers with a fiery verve that was breathtaking. Rundell stepping down from the stand to assume the guise of Caiaphas the Elder was subtly poignant with a self-righteous fire that all but consumed the stage in a thrilling verbal dual with Wendorf’s Cunningham.

None came as a real surprise, as all of these actors have proven themselves more than up to the task when a difficult script is presented to them. The delights came in the form of Kerrigan Sivils, whose bombastic and sanctimonious Pontius Pilate forever changed my view of the young actresses capabilities. The same goes for young Gina Demondo, who slipped easily from the mourning mother Henrietta Iscariot into the swaggering bravado of Simon the Zealot, then easily into the smug pomposity of Sigmund Freud like she was born to the stage.

McKensi Karnes turn as a hard-of-hearing and easily provoked Mother Teresa was memorable, but it wasn’t until she assumed the guise of the messiah himself, that she truly dazzled, with an incandescence that was more than a match for the revived and inconsolable Iscariot. Cap that with yet another unforgettable performance by Gieb, this time as the lost and regretful Butch Honeywell, whose tale of love and loss unexpectedly turns the tide for Iscariot and sets the stage for a powerful confrontation.

In fact, that final scene between Karnes and Lopez is so nuanced and understated it delivers a hammer blow to the chest, bringing the audience to its feet without hesitation or forethought. Heaps of praise must be given to director Darin Robert Cabot for his outstanding staging in very difficult surroundings, but a very generous tip of the hat to each and every performer that waltzed, fretted and stormed across the Picacho Peak Brewery stage. I have not been this entertained in a very long time. It was a production that will stay with me even longer.

Saddled with a very short run, The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot has just three more performances in Las Cruces. Friday through Sunday, July 15 – 17. Then it moves to El Paso’s Glasbox Theater for two nights, Friday and Saturday, July 22 and 23. If you have the opportunity to catch this outstanding showcase of local talents, I urge you to do so. Brave the heat and the bugs or make the 45-minute drive. It is worth every inconvenience and, in the end, will make you appreciate all the more what you are experiencing. Community theater doesn’t get much more visceral than this!

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