Monday, March 7, 2011

A Writ From God: A Visit With JUDAS in The UWM Prop Shop

Sandy Strawn works with students to bring the tiny effects of THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISARIOT to the stage.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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When I walk into the prop shop at UWM, I ask to speak with Sandy Strawn. I am shown to a woman who is toiling away on a piece of slate. She’s working text onto the slate in an Asian language—I believe Chinese. She’s working on a writ from God. The original plan was to have the memo from god written on velum—something ethereal-looking that would look beautiful in the right light. The prop shop had a few old pieces of slate left over from a previous production years ago . . . and Strawn thought maybe God would bang-out a writ on slate. An initial test with the director proved promising and so Strawn began work on the writ. 

 

The writ in question is a memo from god to a lower court in Purgatory where UWM’s production of Andy Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot takes place. It’s courtroom drama telling the story of a trial of Judas in a courtroom in Purgatory. The writ that Strawn was working on when I entered the prop shop was a n order from the highest possible authority to a judge in Purgatory to give Judas something of an appeal trial. Figuring that such an order would likely be written in multiple languages due to the whole debacle with the Tower of Babel, Strawn decided to etch out the slate writ in multiple languages. So it looked cool, but those weren’t actually intelligible paragraphs in Arabic, Chinese and other languages were they? Yes, actually. The text in question is a direct translation of a very coherent command that Judas be tried in court in multiple different languages thanks to an online translation engine. The prop in question is visible onstage for less than a minute. No one is ever going to be close enough to the writ to read it. And Strawn is making absolutely certain that it the prop is internally consistent. It’s that kind of attention to detail that should add immeasurably to the production.

Elsewhere in the  prop shop, a student was busy reinforcing a paperboard box of beer to be carried onto stage by a character with  Northern Wisconsin accent wearing waders. (It’s that kind of production.) A large number of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon rested on te counter not far from where Strawn was working on the writ. Far back in the shop, a tiny woman was working on a very, very large chair. The judge reluctantly presiding over the court in Purgatory sits at a towering bench. The chair he sits in has to be big enough to make its presence known behind a ridiculously tall desk. And as there really isn’t a standard judge’s style chair big enough to display itself prominently behind a 10 foot tall judge’s bench, the prop shop is building a rather nice looking chair from scratch. And since a judge’s chair of over 10 foot in height wouldn’t be of use in any other production, people in the props department have been discussing what to do with the towering piece of furniture. If I remember correctly, the idea of sending as a gift to a certain man in Madison had been suggested . . .

The lofty position of a judge serving a portion of eternity in Purgatory gives one the kind of sense of authority that could make a person feel bold enough to take away a substantial number of bargaining rights from a great many people . . . or maybe simply refuse to consider most of the cases that cross his desk. As such, the props department has created ridiculously large stamps to rest atop he judge’s lofty desk . . . one reads “denied” the other, “super denied.” How big are they? If I recall correctly, the stamps were fashioned out of table legs. They are fully-working stamps. Likely they will not be USED as fully-working stamps in the production.

It’s a remarkable attention to detail, but it’s not uncommon for UWM’s’ props department to be working on a meticulous scale providing properties with dimensions that aren’t fully explored or appreciated by most audiences who attend the show . . . but with this show, there’s more imagination involved. Guirgis’ courtroom Purgatory is a mishmash of different eras. With stylistic influences from every era throughout eternity, the props department has a lot of influences to draw from. There’s going to be substantial depth to every detail of this production . . .

UWM Theatre’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot  runs March 9th -13th at UWM’s Mainstage Theatre. For reservations, call 414-229-4308. 

 

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