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A Jesuit Off-Broadway Hardcover – September 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Martin, an author and Jesuit priest, lifts the curtain on theater life in this account of his experiences as theological adviser to an off-Broadway play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. It was the role of a lifetime for Martin, who had access to all the players involved in the production from the first readings to the play's five-week run in 2005. Although the play, which deals with the fate of the disciple who betrayed Christ, is compelling in and of itself, the way Martin combines the story line with historical detail and conversations with the actors, playwright and director is utterly captivating. Martin takes readers inside the play and into the minds of the key players, showing everything from glimpses into their spiritual lives to their reactions to the mixed reviews the play received. As a writer, editor and parish priest, Martin was obviously stage-struck by his encounter with the theater. But his transparency is sweet and refreshing, particularly when he talks about the ways in which the play affected him spiritually. His ability to translate and dissect the gospel story of Judas for a troupe of thespians echoes through his writing, making this a book that is bound to draw applause from a diverse audience. (Sept.)
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Martin begins his fascinating account of the making of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, from conception to closing night, by admitting he began not knowing much about the theater. Guirgis recruited him in October 2004 to provide some background about Jesus and life in first-century Palestine. At the time, Guirgis was knee-deep in the play, which was soon to be produced off-Broadway at the acclaimed Public Theater. During the next few months, Martin got enmeshed in the collaborative process, providing information and moral support to Guirgis, befriending the actors, and engaging director Philip Seymour Hoffman in thorny theological discussionsall the while taking notes about the changes play, ensemble, and he were going through. His fly-on-the-wall account offers clear-eyed insight into contemporary American theater such as only a passionate outsider could provide. Martin, an ordained Jesuit priest after all, leavens the discussion with his research into biblical history and the various current controversies swirling around all accounts of Jesus, his followers, and his era. Helbig, Jack
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I particularly enjoyed Martin's exploration of the role of Judas within the Gospel narratives: What was his motivation for betraying Jesus? If Jesus offered him forgiveness, why wouldn't he accept it? What role did despair play? If there was one thing I appreciated the most though, it was the fact that book was casual enough that it didn't feel like I was reading a theological textbook; at the same time, it wasn't SO relaxed that it wasn't substantive.
A word of warning: if you are a very conservative Catholic, you may take issue with both the book's language (actors in NYC are a rowdy bunch, and Martin captures that well) and its exploration of some elements of Christology which may fall a little out of line with the official Church teaching. I told an acquaintance of mine (who is quite theologically orthodox in her views) about Martin's suggestion that Jesus may not have been completely aware of the dimensions of His divine mission up until the Resurrection. She seemed shocked and horrified that a Catholic priest would advance what in her mind was the "downplay of Christ's divinity". I am Catholic myself, but perhaps a little more open-minded about such things. Consider yourself warned, though let's be honest: if you are extremely conservative you probably wouldn't be reading a book written by a Jesuit priest anyway.
I didn't give this book 5 stars because I probably won't want to read again within the next couple of years - it isn't a captivating page-turner you can't set down, nor will it make a lasting mark upon the field of theology. Still, if you want an easy read that is still thought-provoking and inspiring, A Jesuit Off-Broadway doesn't disappoint.
The actors are depicted as regular human beings, individually, personally, with their acting greatness, but also with their doubs, sufferings, conflicts, interior conversions, failures and anxieties, influenced or soothed, by the study of their own characters in the play: "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot". The book title is perfectly descriptive of the hard work behind the scenes before a theater play is presented to the public. The presence of the priest as theological advisor is well integrated in the development process of the play. He is very human and understanding, though he helps to guide and keep the biblical story in check. The last chapter summarized the spiritual impact that, as advisor behind the scenes, the process had on the author himself, James Martin SJ. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the diversity of lives, theater, playwriting, or just in the arguments about Judas life and death, doutbs and forgiveness, then and today.
The book is recommended for all theatre lovers and especially for young actors who are learning their stage skills because it gives them an exciting and personal insight into the hard work and many hours it takes to understand and absorb a character they might be asked to portray someday. And the book is fun reading--one need not be Catholic or any religion to enjoy the journey Father Martin experienced.