“What if Judas was on God’s side?” pondered Bob Dylan in the 1960s, a notorious quip which became the basis for Tim Rice to write the libretto to the 1969 concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar” which though today may be dinner theater safe as a pious passion play, in its day, sparked immense protest and controversy. New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has extended that basic idea into a full-scale afterlife trial of Judas Iscariot, an immensely clever idea which allows Guirgis to explore the purpose and role of religion in our lives in a daring and cutting-edge manner all too rare in plays where religion is used merely as set dressing. “The writers of the gospels,” shouts Mark Czoske as an annoyed High Priest Caiaphas under prosecutor Kathleen Logelin’s increasingly anti-Semitic inquisition, “they need forgiveness, not I.” It is a chilling moment, all the more powerful because the gospels have indeed been invoked across two thousand years of anti-Semitism that has attempted to place the blame for the death of Jesus on “the Jews.” Pilate, representing Rome—which became more allied with emerging Christianity as missionaries used the roads and infrastructure of its vast Empire to proselytize the new faith—finds himself exonerated of all blame. “You didn’t have to wash your hands,” Logelin scolds Pilate, “history has done it for you,” a history that as Pilate notes, was written by “four different Jews who weren’t there in the first place.” This is powerful stuff that would make Mel Gibson squirm and ultimately leads to a much-anticipated if ultimately somewhat anti-climactic confrontation between Judas (Michael Patrick Thornton) and Jesus (Syler Thomas) that seems needlessly and endlessly interrupted by another character. As is, the monologues currently feel more like beautiful but isolated beads haphazardly placed across a necklace rather than conceived as a compact and organic whole. But Guirgis is really on to something here that if allowed to evolve, has the potential to become a true masterpiece. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Victory Gardens Greenhouse, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000. Thu-Sat 7:30pm/Sun 2:30pm. $35-$40. Through July 20.