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Theater Wed Nov 20 2013

Paulus at Silk Road Rising: Too Much Theology, Too Little Drama

Silk Road Rising is a theater company that specializes in the stories of the countries and cultures of the legendary trade route that linked Asia with the Mediterranean. Their past productions have been interesting political and social commentaries such as Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi (a comical and terrifying story of an Arab-American man after 2001) and Merchant on Venice by Shishir Kurup (a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice set on the California beach).

So it's puzzling that the theater would present a clearly theological and even polemical story such as the new production of Paulus, written by Motti Lerner and directed by Jimmy McDermott. The play presents a psychological study of Paulus (the Greek name taken by Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul the Apostle and St. Paul). The setting is some 30 years after the death of Jesus Christ (Torey Hanson), and an older Jesus appears here to consult with Paulus (Daniel Cantor).

Paulus-DiNicola-Cantor-GB.jpg
DiNicola and Cantor. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The story line is complicated and sometimes hard to follow as Paulus preaches to Christians and Jews to persuade them to agree on a universal god, whether or not they abide by the 613 tenets of the Torah and other Jewish law. The action goes back and forth in time, and we see Paulus and his interactions with the Romans, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the Sanhedrin. Hananiah, the Jewish high priest (a strong performance by Bill McGough), sees Paulus' approach as a threat to Jewish identity. In each scene, some group is out to get Paulus.

The complaints of his faithful servant, Trophimos (Anthony DiNicola), provide a humorous counterpoint to Paulus' earnestness. Paulus (and sometimes Trophimos) is repeatedly arrested, tried, sentenced to hanging or crucifixion and then released. At the end, he actually dies by another means.

Emperor Nero (Glenn Stanton) is opposed to Paulus and all he stands for, and sentences Paulus to execution. But Stanton plays Nero with a certain evil charm (think Tony Soprano or Walter White). Nero plays the ukulele, while singing to us: "It's no easy job to be god."

Theological debates between gentiles and Jews about the tenets of the two faiths might be intellectually stimulating in another format, but in Paulus, they become tedious. They reminded me of my days in Lutheran catechism class. To a 13-year-old (now a nonbeliever), these religious distinctions seemed like dry stuff, but Pastor Roth of the Church of the Good Shepherd was scintillating in comparison to these debaters as he explained how Lutherans were different from other Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

Unfortunately, the directing does not enliven the debates and the acting is a bit uneven. The language sometimes seems stilted or awkward although this could be a result of the translation from Hebrew (by Hillel Halkin).

The costuming designed by Elsa Hiltner suits the mood and the era. Dan Stratton's severely simple set is composed of a large central platform and ramp and two smaller side platforms with extensive use of white steel tubing for staging and props. The overall effect is rather dark with spotlights used to highlight action.

The original musical score by Peter Storms is inspired by traditional Jewish and Christian musical forms; he combines western instruments such as organ, dulcimer and zither with world instruments such as the stringed rebab, Chinese percussion and kalimba. Still, the sound I remember most from Paulus is the clanging of pipes as they were used for signals, weapons, and the two branches of a cross.

Lerner is a well-known Israeli playwright and professor, whose work has won many awards. He wrote an earlier Silk Road production, Pangs of the Messiah, about Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Silk Road Rising will present Paulus at the Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., through Dec. 15, with performances Thursday through Sunday; times vary. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased online or by calling 312-857-1234, ext. 201.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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