Paul's teachings to the Gentilesthat the Gentiles could achieve redemption through faith rather than works or adherence to the 613 commandmentswas believed by the Jewish elders to be a threat to the Jewish people. They believed they would be isolated and hated by Gentiles who Paul was telling could gain redemption without full obedience to Jewish law. While the ruling Romans largely sought to distance themselves from religious matters of the Jews, Lerner suggests Paul's eventual execution by the Romans resulted from the Emperor Nero's fear that the belief in a God that Paul was preaching would be a threat to Nero's authority.
Lerner shows Paul to be steadfast in his belief of a single, universal Godeven as he debates Jesus, who preached his gospel mainly to the Jews. Lerner asks if the tribalism and sectarianism associated with some religious thinking is a barrier to achieving a better, more harmonious world. It's a thought-provoking theme set in a historical context that is likely new to many in the audience, as it was to me. However, Paulus succeeds more in sparking that philosophical discussion than it does as drama. There's lots of conflict, but the script is mostly very talky. The structure fights against much of an arc. It opens with an appearance by the Emperor Nero (Glenn Stanton), a youthful, muscular and commanding figure who announces his intention to execute Paul (Daniel Cantor). The story continues with flashbacks to earlier moments in the last six years of his life, intercut with appearances by Nero and Jesus (Torrey Hanson). The scenes may or may not be in chronological order and they all have relatively equal stakes. Frequently, Paul's life is put in jeopardy and is saved through his quick wits and persuasiveness, or by intervention from others. It happens so frequently that these near-executions come off more as "The Perils of Paulus" than as suspenseful moments.
The cast, directed by Jimmy McDermott, is strong. Cantor's Paulus contains all the resolve and anguish the script suggests. Hanson's Jesus is wise and wearysaddened by the realization that his sacrifice has not resulted in the immediate redemption of mankind. Stanton is a charismatic Nero and gets to sing as well, with an impressive bass-baritone voice. Anthony DiNicola provides comic relief as Paulus' faithful servant Trophimos, and Bill McGough and D'Wayne Taylor are imposing as authority figures. Carolyn Hoerdemann and Dana Black are sympathetic as the woman Paulus may have loved and a Roman who helps extend his life.
The play is performed on a simple set of planks, designed by Dan Stratton, effectively lit by Rebecca A. Barrett. The cast is costumed in garb designed by Elsa Hiltner that is more suggestive of the era than literal. Sound designer Peter J. Storms has contributed a wistfully melodic incidental music score.
It's all a very classy and thoughtful production that may offer its audiences a deeper understanding of religion in world history and spark some critical thinking about organized religion in today's society and politics. Audiences interested in including something like that in their holiday menu ought to pay it a visit.
Paulus will play Pierce Hall in the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Chicago through December 15, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.silkroadrising.org or call 312-857-1234, ext. 201