By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ah, Purgatory. It’s complicated. If our fate hung in the balance between a celestial playground and a worst-case scenario, how would we feel about sin and redemption?
Using Biblical passages, historical characters, street vernacular, imagined flashbacks and behavioral psychology, prodigious playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis tests our definitions of sin and grace in a bold and epic conundrum, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
Unusual, intense and penetrating — this ambitious Mustard Seed Theatre production is an extraordinary achievement for all involved. It’s tough, tender, edgy and above all, heartfelt.
In this sprawling and fiery opus, Guirgis explores a complex dynamic between Jesus and Judas that has confounded believers for centuries. We don’t know for certain, but Guirgis’ imagination is as limitless as it is meandering. He is a man bursting with ideas, concepts, philosophical musings and diatribes.
(And cursing. Lots o’ that among his nimble wordplay. Don’t bring the kids. Definitely for mature audiences).
Intimate in setting but big-picture brilliant in scope, the play is quite a winding – and witty — journey through time and space. So buckle up, the character clashes are riveting.
Guirgis, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, for “Between Riverside and Crazy,” has given us so much to mull over that I felt as if I was cramming for a theology exam. Afterwards, I was exhilarated and emotionally spent. No test. (Or is it? Hmmm…).
But I also pondered how I would answer for my actions, decisions and interactions. I want to be more mindful, such is the effect of this play – it resonates spiritually and is rooted in reality. (Or maybe it’s the Catholic guilt rearing its ugly head. Never get away from it, no matter what age).
Assessing our lives is a natural by-product of this profound play. Oh, it’s alternately subtle, harsh, dark and funny — and more, throughout its nearly 3-hour runtime.
Because the drama’s heft is so daunting, director Adam Flores tackled the demands by shrewdly assembling a fearless cast, all up for the challenge.
His assistant director is Jacob Schmidt and Stage Manager Alycia Martin must have been a drill sergeant calling the show, for 27 characters come and go in a Purgatory courtroom.
Flores firmly moves the 13 actors as if he’s masterminding a chess tournament. It’s obviously a passion project, sparked by responding to the play in 2006, and arranging this leap of faith in the Fontbonne black box.
Previously, only Hot City Theatre staged it locally, and that was 12 years ago. The off-Broadway premiere at The Public in 2005 was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Sam Rockwell as Judas, Eric Bogosian as Satan and John Ortiz as Jesus of Nazareth.
The enormous level of difficulty cannot be understated. Dramaturg Elisabeth Wurm had to make sense out of a rebel yell, full of faith and doubt, in a traditional court trial frame work. It’s thoughtful and has real depth.
Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a minimal set of angles and platforms, and a few symbolic nods, allowing us to visualize images suggested during the testimonies. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the post-modern atmosphere.
A defense attorney for Judas, indignant Cunningham (Courtney Bailey-Parker), argues that the disgraced disciple should not be damned for all time, that others are culpable in the greater scheme of things, while overzealous prosecutor El-Fayoumy (a dandy Carl Overly Jr.) thinks a special place in hell is just fine.
A jury will decide Judas’ fate, but not before a parade of high-profile witnesses take the stand while a cranky Judge (Chandler Spradling) presides, with a nervous bailiff (Chelsea Krenning) at his beck and bark.
Some folks are impatient, surly and obstinate about being called to testify. Just because they crossed over, doesn’t mean they shed their less appealing characteristics. Saints appear at random, offering afterlife tidbits and spouting humorous anecdotes.
Parker has a considerable amount of heavy lifting, and does not miss a beat in fervent commitment to her client. Overly is slick, cajoling and conniving.
At center is Judas, near catatonic and inconsolable. As Judas, Chris Ware projects both an innocence and a howling despair. Confused, hurt and angry, he is misinterpreted by others at every turn. He barely speaks, but when provoked, he lashes out defiantly. A sadness swells.
The leads are fierce, not intimidated by the show’s weight. While portraying multiple characters or different genders, supporting actors are integral to making it flow seamlessly. Everyone has a purpose, no matter how random it appears.
The smooth ebb and flow of the cast’s intersection is noteworthy, as each character builds upon the others — the cement between the bricks.
Performers must deliver dense dialogue, with passionate monologues tumbling out of them, emphasizing ranges of emotions coursing through their character.
The sorrow of Judas’ mother Henrietta (Carmen Garcia) opens the show. She’s in period garb. But the costumes from designer Andrea Robb bends periods, ranging from traditional to reimagined.
Later switching gears to become an angry Pontius Pilate, Garcia commands the stage with haughtiness and power, bristling at the suggestion he was to blame for Christ’s crucifixion.
The oh-so-smooth Eric Dean White brings the heat as Satan, aka Lu, oozing unctuousness and evil in his first scene. The next time, he’s a ranting megalomaniac, hurling insults, contemptuous of the process.
Those are blustery roles, meant to push buttons. Other performers shine in adrenalized vignettes, particularly the saints. Rae Davis is a delight as both Saint Monica and Simon, while FeliceSkye is laugh-out-loud funny as Saint Peter, and a character Gloria – and a hoot as Sigmund Freud.
Ariella Rovinsky presents a fresh take on Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene, while Rachel Tibbetts is a touch of Rose and a dash of Sophia in a “Golden Girls”-inspired depiction of Mother Teresa. She is also a relatable St. Thomas, stunned by his quick 180 at not being a stand-up guy when Jesus needed him.
Characters recount their beliefs and experiences, and the play becomes a multi-course meal of textures, temperatures and shared plates.
Guirgis, also an actor, appeared in Charlie Kaufman’s unwieldy film about how life works, “Synecdoche, New York,” and this piece is reminiscent in that it has much to digest, and at times, seems overwhelming. It is a long haul.
Stick with it, and you will be rewarded by two of the best moments near the end — intimate reflective exchanges that mimic a therapy session. Jesse Munoz, with a calm yet authoritative demeanor, conveys a compassionate, loving and forgiving Jesus. Graham Emmons is heartbreaking as Butch Honeywell, the jury foreman who breaks the news to a forlorn Judas. He’s compelled to pour out his remorse over self-destructive choices that haunt him forever, and Emmons – new to St. Louis stages this year – is mesmerizing.
Did we experience glimpses of heaven and hell through this erudite discourse? I think we did. Notions of what afterlife awaits us change during our lifetimes, but will forever remain an enigma, no matter how many years we’re here on earth. Simmering inferno or eternal serenity?
No questions are answered here, but plenty are raised — and that’s the point. But you’ll be thinking about the divine order of things for days. Theology students take entire semesters to explore the ideas that the playwright brings up. We had one evening.
But what a tapestry we are confronted with – through a lens of sinners and saints, friendship, free will, grief and destiny.
The New Testament version of Jesus’ final days has been interpreted different ways in popular entertainment, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 47-year-old rock opera musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar” now a blank canvas and Martin Scorsese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” just to name a few. This one’s more under the radar, but a wild ride nonetheless, and worthy of attention.
MST’s earnest, fiery effort will remain one of the year’s most impressive presentations – in its execution, creative dedication and the breadth of its sheer humanity. Your reaction might not be immediate, but this one lingers.
Mustard Seed Theatre presents “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” from Oct. 10 – 28, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., but no Friday, at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, visit: www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Ann K Photography
Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
So, how does one find inspiration to play Mother Teresa? Rachel Tibbetts thought of a popular TV sitcom.
In “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Mustard Seed Theatre, she plays Mother Teresa and two other characters – St. Thomas and Loretta.
“Mother Teresa is such a blast. I am approaching her as Mother Teresa meets ‘The Golden Girls,’” she said.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing three characters. I love the challenge of playing with physicality and voice to move from character to the next.”
The irreverent dark comedy explores the afterlife of former apostle Judas, wanting to know if sin or grief or grace will prevail, and runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28, Wednesday through Sunday, with no Friday performance. It is recommended for mature audiences.

The Last Days of Judas IscariotTibbetts is not the only cast member with multiple roles or who switches genders — 27 diverse characters are woven into a courtroom in downtown Purgatory, part of a jury trial to determine if Judas should remain in Hell. After all, who’s to blame/at fault for his notorious place in history, damned for all-time, his lawyer argues.
The historical and Biblical characters are sinners and saints. The play by Stephen Adly Guirgis was originally staged off-Broadway at The Public Theatre in 2005, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Guirgis went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015, for “Between Riverside and Crazy.”
Her longtime friend and colleague Carl Overly Jr. portrays attorney El-Fayoumy.
“Carl and I get to have so much fun on stage together. It’s also very exciting to be included in an ensemble that beautifully reflects our community,” she said.
Adam Flores, resident artist at Fontbonne University, directed the production. Locally, it is the second time a regional company is tackling the show — HotCity Theatre staged it in 2006.
Besides Tibbetts and Overly, the ensemble includes: Courtney Bailey Parker, Rae Davis, Graham Emmons, FeliceSkye, Carmen Garcia, Chelsea Krenning, Jesse Munoz, Ariella Rovinsky, Chandler Spradling, Chris Ware and Eric Dean White.
Active in regional theater for more than 10 years, Tibbetts has become one of St. Louis’ most versatile artists working today.
Little Thing Big Thing with Joe HanrahanIn the past three years alone, Tibbetts has played a nun on the run, a faux vampire, a German matron trying to make sense of the World War II fallout, Athena goddess of war, a spoiled social climber in hell, Lady Macbeth, an exotic secret agent in a Hitchcock movie parody, a Spanish painter and Harvard star-mapper.
She is a founding member of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, and has been in productions at The Midnight Company, ERA (Equally Represented Arts) Theatre, R-S Theatrics, Tennessee Williams Festival, Young Liars and West End Players Guild.
While she has been able to portray many memorable roles, one of her all-time favorite experiences was this past winter, when she played trailblazing ‘astronomer’ (data entry clerk) Henrietta Swan Leavitt in Laurwn Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky” in the West End Players Guild production.
Silent Sky, with Michelle Hand, Jamie Pitt and Rachel Tibbetts. Photo by John Lamb“I don’t know if a day has gone by since we closed where I haven’t thought about this particular line: ‘Because wonder will always get us there.’ Every aspect of working on ‘Silent Sky’ was truly an experience of wonder – the script, the director, the cast, the production ensemble,” she said.
“My grandmother passed away while working on the show. She was always supportive of me as an artist. My heart hurt, and still does, from her death, but working on the show gifted me healing,” she said.
No Exit. Photo by Joey RumpellShe has dedicated her work this year to “Grams.” And she has kept busy.
Tibbetts doesn’t only act — she directed “Run-On Sentence” for SATE this spring. With Lucy Cashion, she co-directed a new adaptation of “Antigone” at the women’s prison in Vandalia, which was a collaboration between Saint Louis University and Prison Performing Arts.
As a co-producer, she is working on a new translation of “Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus” for SATE, which opens Oct. 31. She co-produced the second annual Aphra Behn Emerging Artists’ Festival with SATE this spring.
She also filmed a movie based on Anton Chekhov’s “Platonov” with ERA Theatre and Sleepy Kitty.
Theater takes up most of her waking life.
After earning a B.A. in theatre from Oklahoma State University, she found an internship opportunity with the Delaware Theatre Company’s education department.
“I had an interest in education as well,” she said, noting that she has worked with Young Audiences of St. Louis and is a graduate of the Community Arts Training Institute at the Regional Arts Commission in 2006-2007.
This year, she marked 13 years with Prison Performing Arts and is currently their Director of Youth Programs.
“It’s very much an honor to create and collaborate with the adult and youth artists in all of our facilities,” she said.
“I have been lucky enough to have always had a job in the arts since college, and I’m very grateful to make my living doing what I love to do,” she said.
Maggie Conroy and Rachel in ERA’s “Trash Macbeth” 2016She moved to St. Louis in 2003. After getting a divorce in 2006, she discovered SATE through her friend Kim. She accompanied her to a training session and met founder Margeau Baue Steinau, and two years later, she met another kindred spirit, founder Ellie Schwetye.
“I am the artist who I am and have had the opportunities I’ve had because of them,” she said.
She considers working with her SATE family “fun, exhilarating and challenging.”
“Ellie and I focus on creating an environment where people can experiment and have fun. It’s also extremely important to us to create a community where everyone – on stage and off – feel like both themselves and their work matter,” she said.
“And I’m really proud of the magic our coven creates – our coven being Ellie, myself, Bess Moynihan and Liz Henning (resident designers),” she said.
Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts accepting award for Best Ensemble – Comedy for “First Impressions” at 2018 St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Photo by Gerry LoveShe and Ellie are the yin and yang.
“Ellie and I work well because we complement each other. We definitely are two different individuals in many ways, and I love that about us. It creates a relationship, both personal and professional, where we can continually grow from working with — and just knowing –each other,” she said.
Because wonder will always get us there.
Here are Rachel’s answers to our Take Ten Questions:
Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
I was obsessed with the movie “Annie” as a little girl. I had the red dress. We owned the record. I would wander around the house singing, “Amaya, Amaya, I love ya Amaya,” because I couldn’t pronounce the word tomorrow. My mom tells me that there are moments where she wanted to get rid of the record because I just wouldn’t stop, but she didn’t, and I am thankful.
My parents always encouraged me to pursue the arts.
They were always taking me to see plays and musicals, but beyond the doors of our homes (my dad was in the Air Force and we moved a lot), I was pretty shy. I finally started taking theatre classes in middle school. It really helped me find my voice and a community. I was lucky to have an incredible drama teacher in high school and she also encouraged me.
2, How would your friends describe you?
Recently, a very dear friend, described me as a love-magnet. I love this. I think they would also describe me as loopy and they know what they mean.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Watching the ‘Real Housewives’ and then gossiping about the Real Housewives with my friends Andrew and Carl, hanging at the Crow’s Nest with Bess.”
What is your current obsession?
“Stranger Things.” I can’t leave Target without purchasing a new t-shirt. I now have a one tee limit anytime I leave there. I love everything about that show because it reminds me of everything I loved about my childhood – “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Ghostbusters.”
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I’m not afraid of spiders. And maybe that I’m 40.”
St. Louis Theater Circle Awards 2018, SATE winners of Best Ensemble – Comedy and Best New Play for “First Impressions”Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“In 2006, I got divorced and I was really searching for something, so a good friend of mine, Kim, invited me to join her for a Monday night training with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Then, I met Margeau. And two years later, I met Ellie. I am the artist who I am and have had the opportunities I’ve had because of them.”
Who do you admire most?
“My mom and dad, Paul and Judy. They are the kindest people I know. And they make me laugh so much.”
What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“To see Kendrick Lamar in concert.”
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Eat cheese and drink margaritas at Mi Ranchito.”
What’s next?
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” with Mustard Seed Theatre – actor; “Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus” – co-producer; and “First Impressions” – directing a remount performance at the women’s prison in Vandalia, Mo.
Her parents are moving here in December, so she has that to look forward to, too.
The Cherry Sisters Revisited. Rachel is bottom row, middle.MORE ON RACHEL TIBBETTS
Name: Rachel TibbettsAge: 40Birthplace: Rapid City, South DakotaCurrent location: Where St. Louis City and Maplewood meetFamily: Paul and Jude, my parents, and my fur kids: Lyric, Monroe, and RubyEducation: B.A. in Theatre from Oklahoma State UniversityDay job: Director of Youth Programs for Prison Performing ArtsFirst job: Server at Simple Simon’s Pizza in Enid, Okla.First role: Cobweb in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”Favorite roles/plays: Effie/”The Cherry Sisters,” Every role in “R+J: A Telephone Play,” Horatio in “Remember Me,” Henrietta in “Silent Sky”Dream role/play: I don’t have one.Awards/Honors/Achievements: Best Ensemble in a Comedy for “The 39 Steps” (St. Louis Theater Circle) and SATE won “Best Production of a Comedy for “As You Like It” and Best Ensemble in a Comedy/Best New Play for “First Impressions.”
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Because wonder will always get us there…” –  from Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky”
A song that makes you happy: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, and with modern technology we can listen to it whenever we want.
“Judgment at Nuremburg” with Joe Hanrahan. Photo by Joey Rumpell.