November 22, 2013
At the Chicago Temple Provocative fictionalized treatment of the last days of the apostle Paul has anti-Christian overtones
Trying to write and stage a religious play, especially one write by a Jew about a key figure in early Christianity, is a tough task to full off. Decisions as to style and staging added to the static nature of the drama. Playwright Motti Lerner applies the theological debate approach common within Judaism called midrash to the way characters approach each other in Paulus. “Midrash is a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. The purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the interpretation of difficult passages of the text of the Hebrew Bible, using Rabbinic principles to align them with the religious and ethical values of religious teachers.”
That generous use of midrash, while effective for presenting sides in a theological discourse, slows down the drama rendering it more of a polemic than a play. I enjoy theological arguments better than most as evidenced by many patrons dosing off throughout the two hour performance. Daniel Cantor plays Paulus (the Greek word for Paul, the apostle) as azealot whose messianic mission is to get the gentles to believe in Christianity. He is challenged by both Hananiah (Bill McGough), the chief rabbi and a tired docile 62-year-old Jesus ( Torrey Hanson). Hananiah views Paulus’ stance that gentles can be saved, as Christians without adhering to strict laws and traditions of Judaism, to be a threat to Judaism’s very existence. Jesus, who appears to Paulus as an aging old man (why, since in heaven there is no aging?) warns Paulus that he needs to have all men adhere to the laws of Judaism and that converting the gentles will happen gradually over time. This fictionalized relationship between Jesus and Paulus comes off as an indirect denial of the basis of Christianity since Paulus is the transitional force behind the spread of Christianity universality.
Director Jimmy McDermott’s staging tries for a theatrical flare to offset the large doses of polemic. He somewhat succeeds but long discourses render much of the work as a static affair. The cast worked hard to humanize this religious story that finds Daniel Cantor playing Paulus as a uncompromising zealot while Bill McGough has Hananiah as his chief foe. D’Wayne Taylor, as Lysias, is pure emotions while Dana Black gives Drusilla a splendid unanimity. Glen Stanton was terrific as the singing Nero. Anthony DiNicola was empathic as Trophimos, Paulus’ loyal servant.
I admire the hutzpah of Silk Road Rising for taking a chance with this most problematic play. Paulus may stretch credulity and be a tad too much for many to handle yet it is daring, provocative and enticing work. It will bore some, offend others, and yet I found it theatrically appealing in a strange way. It sure challenges us to think, analyze, and consider the nature and essence of our beliefs. Jews and Christians will find much to rile about. So make the effort to stay with Paulus‘ style, it’ll payoff.