Offbeat: Silk Road's world premiere Paulus a fascinating blend of faiths / by R. Sheth

November 18, 2013
By Phil Potempa

One of the hidden stage treasures of the Chicago Loop is a performance space programmed by Silk Road Rising theater company, under the direction of executive director Malik Gillani.

Located in the intimate surroundings of Pierce Hall in the lower level at the historic Chicago Temple Building at 77 W. Washington St., this is a group dedicated to explore themes and stories intended to engage the audience.

Now until Dec. 15, Silk Road Rising is hosting the world premiere of "Paulus," set between 58 C.E. and 64 C.E., and as described by Gillani, provides "a unique glimpse into the latter years of Second Temple Judaism and the Apostolic Age of early Christianity, a period characterized by political tumult, social upheaval, fierce theological battles, and an increasingly brutal Roman occupation of Judea."

As involved and detailed as the subject matter might sound, Silk Road Rising masterfully presents this play by Motti Lerner, neatly served up in two hours, including a 10-minute intermission, while seizing the hearts, minds and souls of the audience by way of a talented cast under the direction of Jimmy McDermott.

The playwright explains the synopsis best in his own words: "It explores neither the historical Paul nor the mythological Paul, but rather the psychological Paul. A Paul who witnessed the crucifixion and was traumatized by it. 'Paulus' imagines the Apostle Paul as he's dragged from his prison cell to his execution site in Rome. Like the gospel writer, the playwright is not a historian and is not interested in relaying facts, but in revealing truths. The meaning of what happened is more important than what actually happened."

Much of the spiritual and soul-searching tug-of-war is between a 62-year-old Jesus, played delicately by Torrey Hanson and the ego-maniacal, instrument strumming Emperor Nero, as portrayed with superb sense-of-self, by the talented Glenn Stanton.

In the title role, Daniel Cantor crosses all boundaries with believable passion and conviction as Paulus, faithfully tended to by servant Trophimos, with the wonderful wit, craft and timing of actor Anthony DiNocola.

Add to all of this the stunning and striking performances by actresses Dana Black as Princess Drusilla and Carolyn Hoerdemann as Adima, but strong female characters devoted to the title character, and scene after scene serves up the audience a new confrontation and exploration of the conflicting collision of the Christian and Jewish faiths during this time. Actor Bill McCough completes the stage equation as the calculating high priest Hananiah who is eager to expose and dispose of Paulus.

Dan Stratton offers a stark yet inventive and functional set design, nicely coupled with the costumes of Elsa Hiltner, Rebecca A. Barrett's lighting and Jesse Gaffney dreaming up some amazing props (an infant and a lamb, both recently succumbed, are especially impressive). The other quality that transports the audience for this theater experience is the sound design and original score by Peter J. Storms, who blends traditional western instruments like organ, dulcimer and zither with world intruments like rebab, Native American flute, Chinese percussion and kalimba.