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Silk Road Rising's High-Minded Exploration Of An Apostle

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 22, 2013 8:20PM

Silk Road Rising's production of Paulus.

In one of the more affecting scenes in Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s world premiere of Paulus, now being staged by the multicultural arbiter Silk Road Rising, we see the apostle Paul (Daniel Cantor) shouldering a heavy cross, clearly close to death, while the Roman emperor Nero (Glenn Stanton) leers on. Paulus follows the fairly well-known story of St. Paul and those who are unfamiliar learn that Paulus was actually born a Jew under the name of Saul in 8 C.E. He spent time persecuting Christians while serving as a member of the popular Jewish party, the Pharisees. Years later, on his way to arrest a Christian preacher, Paulus saw a vision of Jesus that convinced him to convert to Christianity and spread the gospel of Jesus as the Messiah. These facts do trickle in, but they’re hard to decipher amid the parts of the play that many in the audience are much less familiar with. Unfortunately issues such as regional politics and social hierarchy go unexplained and muddy up the storyline for those of us who are unfamiliar with the details.

With passionate actors (especially Cantor) and a potentially rich plotline, Paulus could be a deeply exploratory play. What factors limited Jesus's role in Judiasm? How and why does that differ from Christianity? But in its current incarnation, the show’s attempts to probe those questions result in a story that's high-minded but hard to follow.

On Paulus’s journey he encounters supporters—his faithful Greek servant (Anthony DiNicola), former wife (Carolyn Hoerdemann) and scholarly nephew (also played by Stanton)—and even more enemies, including the ukulele-playing Nero and the high priest Hananiah (Bill McGough). But the play often shifts back to Paulus’s time in jail, which results in a fragmented and somewhat disjointed feel. In several scenes passion quickly turns to shouting and the audience is left searching for the bits of meaning leftover from the characters’ rushed dialogue. (The script was translated from the original Hebrew by Hillel Halkin.)

Silk Road has an admirable goal; challenging conventional stereotypes of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures through thought-provoking theater and multimedia content, which is no easy task. Just this year, the organization has produced show’s that hit at the core of racial profiling and deep cultural divides, so it’s not surprising they chose to produce Paulus, which brings together religion, ethnicity and personal struggle. The play is not one-size-fits-all—a good thing—but it fails to define its abstract ideas and questions to the average theatergoer. The show assumes you’re well-versed in the specifics of the opposing ideologies surrounding the figure of Jesus in Jewish and Christian theology. Paulus skips the unfamiliar background material and dives right into the advanced philosophy. That may have been intentional, but it results in a show that, at this point, isn’t for the religious layperson. Paulus needs a little more every man structure and untethered language to turn the show into something it truly should be; accessible.

The show runs through Sunday, Dec. 15 at the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington, 312-857-1234 or online.