By Motti Lerner, translation by Hillel Halkin. At: Silk Road Rising, 77 W. Washington Ave. Tickets: 312-857-1234, ext. 201. www.silkroadrising.org; $35. Runs through: Dec. 15
Plays depicting Jesus this time of year are usually a bit more … picturesque than Paulus. Written by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, Paulus makes its world premiere at Silk Road Rising, one of Chicago's foremost purveyors of multi-cultural theatre, and offers an intellectually stimulating alternative to the more digestible, idyllic holiday entertainment.
Paulus tells of the Apostle Paul ( Daniel Cantor ) in the years leading up to his death, when he was arrested by Jerusalem's priests and sent to Rome. During this time he sees visions of both an older Jesus ( Torrey Hanson ) and Roman Emperor Nero ( Glenn Stanton ), who stretch the limits of his theological understanding, testing his notion of the universality of God and monotheism. And all this in the face of being considered a heretic, in a sense, amongst his own kind, the Jewish establishment as embodied by the high priest Hananiah ( Bill McGough ).
Lerner's script speaks with a predominantly philosophical tone from start to finish, wearing its themes on its sleeve as it attempts to paint a psychological portrait of Paul. Without much grounding to start, it takes almost half the play before Lerner's ideas and complex perspective finally get some legs underneath them. Add in director Jimmy McDermott's rolling yet bare-bones staging and a lot of dim lighting and the challenge becomes not merely keeping up with Lerner's thought process, but keeping focus.
When Paul's life becomes more directly at stake after the intermission, his inner torment becomes more fully realized and Lerner's war of conceptual words takes full shape. In its simplest form, Paul's debacle involves whether he should preach adherence to the Commandments as well as his belief in Jesus as Messiah, and whether he should preach to Israel or all peoples. By accepting the doctrine of any one of his influencers, her spurns himself or another, and is ultimately left with an impossible choice over what to believe.
Cantor and the other key players of the ensemble put their experience to good use in Paulus, as such conceptual language requires refined talent to harness it and channel it into a tangible character. They are chained to the script to be certain, but ultimately deserve the credit for when Paulus is at its best.
Lerner, of course, can't be denied his ability to weave together a story centered on nearly mythical figures during a nearly mythical period of history dealing with a sensitive subject matter involving multiple stakeholders of varying religious backgrounds. And he does this without giving off any hint of agenda or raising any moral arguments. Although the characters represent fundamentally different beliefs, they all seem to have moments in which they seem correct and moments in which they seem weak.
Despite some lapses in compelling drama through portions of his play, Lerner has crafted a multi-layered psychological exploration of theological characters, and in doing so allows for a certain distance from areas of religious sensitivity. Audiences might leave desiring to engage in those bigger religious discussions, or they might leave bored, but most likely, in the least, they'll feel challenged to look at and think about theology differently.