The Play's the Thing

Aaron Eckman plays the title role in Attic Rep’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
8pm Thu-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Dec 16
Attic Theater
Trinity University
One Trinity Circle
Theater in San Antonio is currently weighted in favor of two very specific demographics — everyone under 16 years of age, and everyone over 65. If you don’t fall into one of those groups, you’re pretty much screwed. This may be because popular entertainment in town is geared primarily towards the missing 20-to-50-somethings, with the club and sports-bar cultures claiming those not absorbed by hundreds of cable and satellite channels or the endless diversions found online. But metropolitan areas just hours down the interstates offer wider and more varied diversions, and still manage to support thriving professional companies  producing cutting-edge creations. The Vortex Repertory Company in Austin and Infernal Bridegroom Productions in Houston, for example, are only two performance groups among many able to challenge audiences without fear of alienating their respective communities.

Apologists for San Antonio’s dearth of high-quality challenging theater have suggested that an undereducated population is to blame, or the conservative tastes of elderly patrons likely to walk out on a staged performance of two men sharing a kiss. Whatever the explanation, when my life partner of choice — a professional actor, theater teacher, and Yankee transplant (see the cover-our-ass disclaimer at the beginning) — decided to become involved with a production by a local group, the Attic Repertory Company, I wasn’t just hesitant — I tried convincing her to stay out of the San Antonio theater scene altogether.

Attic Rep has several factors in its favor that will most likely make me eat my words. The two men in charge, Roberto Prestigiacomo, producing artistic director, and Tim Hedgepeth, managing director, have broad experience in theater and share a drive to create and experience productions that challenge audiences. Prestigiacomo has worked as an actor, sound designer, director, producer, and playwright across the country, was a founder of three theater companies in Florida and one in New York, and still found time to teach in the field he loves. Hedgepeth, a graduate of Trinity University, served as executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, founded the Renaissance Theater Workshop in Jackson, has served on numerous arts-related councils and committees, including the NEA, and like his counterpart, teaches and lectures in theater. They’re also allied with Trinity University, which provides space for productions as well as other support for the resident company. Based in part on the strength of last season’s company premiere, Harold Pinter’s One For the Road, and the audience dialogues that followed each production, the new company was awarded funding under the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Program to generate discussion about racial, gender, economic, and religious divides.

Attic’s spring production of One For the Road was at times over-the-top in presentation (and may be symptomatic of Pinter’s style as well as the subject matter more than anything else), and was something of a shock compared to the timidity of most San Antonio theater. The upcoming production of The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis promises similar surprises, and for those with open minds, delights. The play presents a gallery of saints and sinners arguing for and against the redemption of the title character in a trial set in Purgatory, with modern references and language wielded by actual and presumed historical figures.

I had the opportunity to sit in on two consecutive rehearsals three weeks before the play’s Friday opening, one a complete run-through. While it isn’t fair to judge a full-blown production based on rehearsals, it does provide a hint of what can be expected. The performances were a mixture of proficiencies, the best of them thoroughly engrossing and at a level of professionalism not usually seen in this town, while none of the worst too distracting to spoil the overall flow. What will help to make this production extraordinary however, is the power of the text — chosen in part for its deeply felt spirituality, which may not be apparent to the readily scandalized, an easy mistake to make when, for example, the Christian Messiah is called a “bitch” by the title character. Despite the profanities and guttersnipe portrayals of historical and biblical characters in this play, it is at heart pure in believing in love, even if that love is unable to heal or redeem. The characters are drawn (by the performers as much as the playwright) to knock the halos loose and flesh them out with piss, blood, and sweat, and they resemble their Mediterranean origins more truthfully than any modern-day church’s depictions, regardless of the urban slang and street-hardened attitudes.

Prestigiacomo is certain the production will upset some people, but Hedgepeth, who’s directing Judas, is hopeful that it’ll be received well, although he admits he might be “overly optimistic.” Both men may be correct — a play as new (it premiered in 2005) and as unwavering in intent as this one is sure to rile audiences capable of walking out of the San Pedro Playhouse’s production of Angels In America, which was already 12-years-old when it opened in San Antonio. But if the post-show audience dialogues for One For the Road are any indication of local interest in new and thought-provoking productions (many of the sessions ran longer than the play itself), Judas will be successful, at least by this city’s standards.

Prestigiacomo and Hedgepeth are realistic about the company’s future — they’re determined to achieve much in a city that shows little interest in supporting the performing arts, but expressed hope for a permanent and paid company of actors in the future, as well as a developing art that serves the wider community beyond the current patrons. Each production is only a single step towards these goals, which are secondary to their overarching aim of stimulating dialogue and having some sort of social impact. When today’s discussions often take the form of shouting matches among overpaid talking heads or pandering politicians on indistinguishable news programs, the oblique approach through storytelling can provide a calmer venue. And when I asked both to tell me simply, as if speaking to a child, what kind of stories they wanted to tell, Prestigiacomo responded, “We tell your stories.” This provides a modicum of hope that San Antonio can support a theater community that not only diverts with entertainment but engages, enlightens, and inspires.


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