Story: In Christianity, there’s a place called purgatory, a stop between heaven and hell. Souls of the deceased go there for cleansing before ascending to heaven or, perhaps if they’re beyond reclamation, eventually spiraling down to the nether world. This isn’t theological gospel necessarily but one person’s interpretation.

Since purgatory is timeless, it’s not too surprising to see Judas Iscariot within its boundaries in the present day, two millenia after he betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. In at least one of the Gospels, Judas hanged himself afterward.

Now, here he sits, brooding and often incoherent. He’s on trial for his actions and even has a defense attorney named Cunningham arguing his case before an unsmiling, hostile judge, with a nervous bailiff at the ready to act on the judge’s pronouncements and incendiary whims.

Prosecuting attorney El-Fayoumy is a genial sort but make no mistake, his mission is to get the jury to render a ‘guilty’ verdict against Judas and send the defendant to Hades for his just desserts. To that end, El-Foyoumy calls a ‘who’s who’ of witnesses to the stand, including Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, St. Monica, Mary Magdalene and St. Peter, while Cunningham counters with Freud and a few others.

Hell, even Satan (‘Lu’) himself is brought before the docket, resplendent in his dark Gucci suit, to parry and thrust with the attorneys while chatting it up with his old buddy, the judge. Yep, there are good times to be had in purgatory, but the jury is still out on Judas.

Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre starts its 12th season with an energized, explosive and entertaining presentation of a long, two-act work by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Director Adam Flores extracts the comedy from within this dark drama courtesy of several outstanding performances by his winning cast.

Other Info: Guirgis’ play, which runs close to three hours because of his inability to get to the point with an ending he elongates for the last 15 minutes or so, ran for just more than a month when it debuted Off-Broadway in 2005. The cast for that effort included Eric Bogosian, Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey DeMunn and Stephen McKinley Henderson, with direction by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

As Flores points out in his director’s notes, the late, lamented HotCity Theatre mounted a production locally in 2006 which featured a stellar cast and a kick-ass rendition of Guirgis’ profane and pithy prose (Mustard Seed notes that its production is not suitable for children). Flores’ version has plenty to recommend it on its own.

For starters, Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is brooding and unsettling, particularly when jury foreman Butch Honeywell recounts his own tale of woe to the unsteady defendant after Judas’ case is put to rest. Dunsi Dai contributes the arresting set design, which features a bare, brittle tree near the center as a reminder of Judas’ earthly fate, bracketed by the judge’s imposing chambers high above the floor where the attorneys debate away from their respective chairs.

Michael Sullivan’s lighting is excellent, both subtle and moody as it underscores the surreal atmosphere of the court, and Andrea Robb’s costumes cover a wide range of contemporary and ancient attire, most notably El-Fayoumy’s checkered sport coat and Mother Teresa’s frumpy habit. Laura Skroska contributes a variety of props to enhance the setting.

Flores’ presentation features fitfully funny scenes as well as poignant dramatic interludes. Overly’s performance as the brash, brazen El-Fayoumy is a highlight, especially when he slips into ‘fan’ mode while interviewing Mother Teresa or doing his best to ‘coyly’ trip up Freud when the latter considers Judas not capable of reason by virtue of his suicide.

Rachel Tibbetts has a scene-stealing moment as the hard-of-hearing Mother Teresa, who springs to life with the help of a hearing aid, and she’s also effective as “doubting” St. Thomas, who notes Judas’ propensity for whining when the Apostles hung out together.

Courtney Bailey Parker is very good as the intelligent, probing defense attorney Cunningham, who occasionally rants at the judge’s mercurial and entirely unfair pronouncements, while Chandler Spradling rages and rants amusingly as that off-kilter judge, who is ticked off because God still hasn’t gotten around to removing him from Purgatory.

As Satan, Eric Dean White is outstanding portraying the Prince of Darkness as a worldly, devil-may-care sort (sorry) who can lure a victim into his lair with charm and an ingratiating smile or resort to a volcanic outburst if that’s what it takes to get what he wants. And he wants a lot.

Carmen Garcia gives an accomplished turn as the steely Pontius Pilate, who appears to be back on his heels under Cunningham’s harsh interrogation until he lets go with a stream of fiery retorts that wither everyone within earshot. Chelseas Krenning contributes as the trepidatious bailiff, while Graham Emmons brings a measure of pity to Honeywell, the quiet jury foreman who wasn’t the best human being himself.

Chris Ware captures the uncertainty and tentativeness of the title character and Jesse Munoz complements him with a quiet, studied portrayal of the all-forgiving Jesus. Rae Davis, FeliceSkye and Ariella Rovinsky complete the cast in several small but well-handled roles, including St. Monica, Freud and Mary Magdalene, respectively.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is one of those provocative, controversial pieces which lingers in the memory a dozen years after seeing it for the first time. This newest interpretation by Mustard Seed Theatre gives some people a chance for a second visit as well as new audiences a rare opportunity to partake of its power and mystery.

Play: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Company: Mustard Seed Theatre

Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown

Dates: October 17, 18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28

Tickets: $30-$35 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on October 18, 25); contact 543-1111 or mustardseedtheatre.com

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb