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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Scene and Heard: Midrashing Saint Paul at Silk Road Rising

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.43.39 AMMidrash: a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.

In November, I had the opportunity to see Paulus, a world premiere by Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theatre. The play explores the last few years of Saint Paul’s life, as well as the historic drama between ancient Jews, Romans and the earliest Christians. Written in Hebrew by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, translated into English by Hillel Halkin, and directed by Jimmy McDermott, Paulus embodies what Silk Road Rising is all about: promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding.

The company was founded by playwright Jamil Khoury and arts innovator Malik Gillani as a creative response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, an effort to counter anti-Muslim sentiment with authentic, critical dialogue through theatre. Their project soon expanded to feature perspectives and playwrights across the historic Silk Road, from Japan to Italy. Now over a decade old, the company occupies the basement of The Historic Chicago Temple Building, a neo-Gothic skyscraper housing a Methodist congregation over 175 years old.

The playwright, Motti Lerner, identifies as both atheist and Jewish. He became interested in the Christian figure of Saint Paul because of Paul’s passionate belief in universalism, the belief that a shared faith in God can unite disparate cultures. In an interview with Jamil Khoury, Lerner explains that Paul’s concept of universalism has a unique degree of credibility in a place like the Middle East, where tribalism and nationalism have caused such widespread devastation. With this as a starting point, the play digs deep into related theological ideas, at once cerebral and politically charged. The dialogue almost moves like a debate, immersing the audience in first century questions that feel overwhelmingly familiar.

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The Historic Chicago Temple Building

Set on a thrust stage sparsely furnished with wooden planks, ramps and coarse brown fabric, Act I opens with Paulus’s capture by the Romans, immediately flashing back to his final trip to Judea. Paulus, by Daniel Cantor, is scrutinized from all sides. His bold, idealistic expansion of Jesus’s more literal message, his virtues and excesses as a religious zealot, the implications of his beliefs on the religious establishment — all of these are fundamental, unresolved questions that in some way or another, we grapple with in the 21st century. In many ways, the drama of early Christianity resembles the modern drama of the Middle East, or at least it is shaped by similar forces: colliding religions, histories, and world views, cultural richness tempered by violent power struggles.

Act II opens with a more emotionally accessible scene: we witness the alluring effect of Paulus’s message on Drusilla, the Jewish wife of a Roman procurator, Felix. Designer Dan Stratton uses bright, clear lighting and a piece of teal, backlit fabric to suggest the calm, sunlit beauty of the Mediterranean, a welcome respite from the chaos depicted in Act I, both inside Paulus’s mind and between religious factions. Drusilla greets Paulus by promenading down a ramp in heels and noble attire, curtseying reverently, inviting him to dinner somewhat seductively. At this point, Felix stumbles drunkenly onstage, demanding Paulus’s execution, attributing the deterioration of his marriage to Paulus’s teachings, raving about his wife’s disobedient, disinterested behavior as she listens silently downstage. Drusilla finally intervenes when Felix lunges toward Paulus as if to kill him, justifying her actions in conciliatory terms, saying that it was Paulus who validated their marriage — a mixed union between Roman and Jew — by preaching that religion transcends tribe. She then picks up the theological debate, confronting the Pharisee Hananiah about the rigidity of Jewish marital laws.

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Drusilla’s moving defense of universalism has the adamant, personal tone of many modern-day religious debates. It is one of many moments where the playwright suggests his admiration for Saint Paul, suggesting the virtues of Paul’s expansive, progressive religious view. In the same interview, Lerner states that Paul’s spirituality is eye-opening for Jewish audiences “not only because he was born Jewish and died Jewish, but because his ideas present an important theological and existential option which is as valid today as it as in the first century.” He gives the example of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might benefit from Paul’s radically open, pluralistic stance.

For Christian audiences, the story of Paul is less revelatory. His emphasis on heartfelt faith over adherence to specific commandments is built into Christianity, as is a secondary cast of corrupt Pharisees. However, the play also challenges this perspective, taking a scalpel to the oft-repeated, bluntly shaped narrative of the Temple Police and illuminating the humanness of their dilemma. Dramatizing a familiar story shows how Paulus’s preachings posed a tangible threat to the survival of Judaism, and how the Pharisees simply fulfilled the expectations of any religious establishment, fearful of change, trying to survive.

The fear of the Pharisees is made palpable by the character Hananiah, a former ally of Paulus, whose slow-building panic is skillfully depicted by actor Bill McGough. At first, he is exhausted by Paulus’s restless ways, wearily reprimanding him, saying that he loves him like a brother, much to his own annoyance. When Paulus is tried before the Pharisees — actors shrouded in cloth on either side of the stage, beating drums and sighing into microphones to suggest the roar of the crowd — Paulus manages to win, perhaps with his old friend’s help. But Paulus’s relentless preaching reveals the strength of his will, leading Hananiah to rebut him in an increasingly shrill, panicky voice: “But what will happen to our people without the commandments?” In the end, it is Hananiah who procures his arrest, wincing and shielding his eyes when Paulus’s Jewish servant Trophimos becomes collateral damage.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.31.45 PMThen there is the battle within Paulus himself. His unresolved questions are explored through conversations with the resurrected Jesus and an imaginary Nero, the Roman emperor. Jesus is played by Torrey Hanson as a concerned, restrained observer who comes and goes at pivotal moments. He mostly chastises Paulus for devaluing the Jewish commandments in his impatience to spread the gospel, countering Paulus’s zeal with cool, reasoned theological arguments. It catches your attention, watching Jesus pause and witness the liberalization of his own message, and on a different note, you wonder why he is wearing sunglasses — do the sunglasses cast Paulus out of his field of vision, or are they meant to more generally assert Jesus’s elevated, divine status? Meanwhile, Glenn Stanton as Nero wanders blithely in and out of Paulus’s head at vulnerable moments, strumming a ukelele and singing catchy, ironic tunes like “it’s no easy job to be God.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.21.54 AMAs a piece of theatre, I found Paulus to be somewhat stilted, although the actors gave convincing, at times moving performances, and the music and sound effects were used cleverly in an intimate space (go Chicago storefront theatre). It’s easy to label the cerebral nature of Paulus a flaw, but perhaps it is a stylistic and cultural difference that risks getting lost in translation. Lerner’s framework for Paulus is the Hebrew spiritual practice of midrash: meditating on scripture by entering into it and filling in unspoken perspectives. To fully appreciate this play, one has to appreciate that the vision of the playwright extends beyond theatre, as does the mission of Silk Road Rising. Both the play and its theatrical home affirm theatre’s central role in the presentation of ideas, a call for unity and universalism that I’m pretty sure Saint Paul would identify with.

[Photos: “Gijs Van Vaerenbergh – Reading Between the Lines Church 03.jpg,” Forgemind Webuse 0008, CC BY 2.0, “Chicago Temple Building, Chicago,” Antoine Tavenaux, CC BY 3.0, “Mosque and Church,” Jonathan Gill’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Saint-Paul,” Antiquité Tardive’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Empty Stage,” Max Wolfe’s photostream, CC BY 2.0]

Getting Existential: Another Reason We Read

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.43.47 AMWhat can I say, snow makes me glad of heart and reflective of mind — that is, white, powdery snowfall on a weekend. In the swirl of so many million, sparkling flakes dropping mutely onto the city pavement, I find myself asking why… Why is the sky blue? Why am I hopelessly addicted to Nutella? Why does lying on a couch sifting through a stack of books for the entire day sound like the epitome of leisure to me? (Wow, this post makes me sound lazy. For the sake of full disclosure, the real problem is my ongoing desire to be working.) Back to stacks of books — is there really a good reason to inch your way toward death with your nose buried in a book? I mean, beyond the types of expansive motivations that “English majors” and “avid readers” cite, from gaining a broader worldview to a deeper understanding of “the human condition,” yada yada.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.47.49 AMHow about honest personal growth? I think the English major variety tends to gloss over this earnest, unglamorous reason. Our painstaking efforts with meaty works of literature can yield more “highly effective habits” than simple endurance — it just takes a little digging to find the guru lurking inside a Melville or a George Elliot, as well as a desire for made-up characters on our path to enlightenment. In my existential angst (actually, my drafting of literary themed pitches) I have amassed several author’s versions of the same mantra — seize the day! Take them as my personal invitation to read these books (starting with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Gilead) in lieu of something from the self-help section. (Or, I suppose if seizing the day is the point, you could ditch reading altogether and hitch a ride to the 2014 national tour of Newsies.) Here goes:

1) “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”  

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.49.36 AMI have a tendency to remember random fragments of books, often forgetting entire characters, and occasionally, the plot itself: this quote ends one of my favorite random passages from Annie Dillard’s poetic nonfiction narrative about the unfolding of the seasons outside her home, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. So often descriptions of nature conjure Puritan virtues (stoicism, endurance, resourcefulness), but Dillard celebrates an entirely different force: larger-than-life, more like France during the baroque period, or a Lady Gaga concert. What is enlightening about this characterization? To me, there is an underlying injunction that if nature is brimming with superfluous creatures, we are meant to follow suit, despite our short-lived creations.

2) “A man who farts in bed…is a man who loves life.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMGourmet Rhapsody is the story of a dying food critic, told through multiple characters with varying degrees of bitterness. As such, it is chock-full of “aha moments” on the nature of happiness, mortality, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This particular observation comes from the critic’s butler, who has a soft spot for his boss’s audible ability to enjoy life.

3) “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.57.20 AMContrary to the “regular bastard” in Gourmet Rhapsody, the terminally ill protagonist in Gilead is a thoughtful reverend writing to his son. This is one kernel of wisdom he imparts. Gilead is one of my favorite books, and it’s another ripe context for page after page of poetically worded existential truths. I have an inkling that other lovers of this book (and Marilynne Robinson’s writing) are reading for the sage soundbites as much as they are for the characters and their poignant circumstances.

4) “If you can get by with quotes from The Godfather and nothing you say matters, that’s pretty bleak, don’t you think?”

 Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.59.11 AMA few words of encouragement for bloggers or creative types, and what more credible source than a satirical novel about a fledgling ad agency? (Again, death, corporate death this time, lurking around the corner.) If there is a moral to a story about lazy copywriters facing impending lay offs, coping with their anxiety via paintball rampages and vicious cancer rumors, it’s get out of the office and live your life.

5) “It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.02.46 AM Okay, this quote isn’t quite related to seizing the day. But for someone writing about cannibals, oceans and sperm whales, I think Melville is remarkably apt at describing the bearded, flannel-sporting, beet-pickling type who thinks he knows something special. If I was a hipster, this is what I would wear on a faded gray t-shirt to let the other hipsters know that I wasn’t impressed with them.

So! Fellow two-for-oners, that is my case for “the importance of reading in earnest,” to get all meta and Wilde on you. What’s a more highly effective habit and purpose-driven pastime than reading to be entertained, intellectually stimulated, and ever so slightly enlightened? Who doesn’t prefer their search for meaning with a side of petty office politics, florid food descriptions, ridiculously protracted whale hunts, and/or creekside ramblings?

[Photos: “Snowflakes,” Moonrhino’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Reading a Book at the Beach,” Simon Cocks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” cdrummbks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “gourmet-rhapsody-muriel-barberry-connected-interactive,” ConnectedInteractive’s photostream, “Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, colinjcampbell’s photostream, CC BY NC-ND 2.0, “Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End,” Wolf Gang’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Moby-Dick Book Cover,” Hyokano’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Going Bananas in Chiberia

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.27.46 PMIn case you have a touch and go relationship with the national news (or perhaps you are lucky enough to live in southern France) allow me to state the obvious: January in Chicago, or “Chiberia,” as Twitter calls it, has been frigid! CPS snow days, I have found, are a prime opportunity for taking stock — as in, looking back and reflecting — although making stock works too. If I remember correctly, I spent “Snowmaggedon” (the 2011 storm that amassed 20+ feet of snow in Chicago) standing over a pot of onions for an onion tart, stinking up my studio apartment with layers of pastry, mustard, onions, and baked eggs. Flash forward two years, minus about a month: early Jan 2013 involved its own version of hibernation — the kind that follows oral surgery — and many painstaking, unsightly bites of homemade bread pudding. (Not sure if the Vicodin played into this, but  sadly, I have had no desire for bread pudding since. In downtown San Francisco, P and I discovered a trendy bread pudding shop where they scoop the pudding into paper cups like ice cream. A cute idea, a creamy confection, somehow it reminded me of the dentist. Oh well.) This year, after 24 hours of intermittent weather related e-mails and duplicate forwards — “Clarification,” “CPS Announces,” “Update,” “Urgent,” “FWD: Urgent” — I found myself hunkered down again, unequivocally off-duty, and after a day’s worth of querying and following up and related freelance rigamarole, turning on the stove.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.34.00 PMPerhaps it was the cold, more likely it was the pile of increasingly brown bananas in my fruit bowl, but I decided that we needed a little tropical flavor in the house. So I decided to go a little bananas. I was trying to keep banana bread at bay, in favor of something more spontaneous, a little looser and less predictable, something that will inspire me next week when I’m having the same issue with these doggone, overripe bananas. Here are the results:

Vanilla Ice Cream with Caramelized Bananas and Almond Crumble

Adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.40.57 PMThe Bon Appetit version is a baked phyllo dough package (excuse me, the recipe reads “purses”) filled with caramelized bananas and hazelnut crumble and served with a white chocolate sauce. As much as I love the many layers of that idea, a deconstructed version sounded better, and slightly less crazy, on a random snow day. The caramelization action over high heat made me wistful for Bananas Foster, brunch and dinner joint that used to sit the corner of Granville and Broadway, with a friendly, lively, Southern vibe and an excellent rendition of its namesake.

Ingredients

  • Brown sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Flour
  • Nuts (your choice)
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Fresh lime juice
  • Bananas
  • Optional: hazelnut liqueur or amaretto

Crumble it Up

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.48.41 PMPreheat an oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone mat and spray it with baking spray. In a saucepan, melt 1 cup of brown sugar with 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup) until the butter has melted. Take the saucepan off the heat and mix in 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup of almonds or whatever nuts you have on hand, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on the greased baking sheet and bake until dry and golden, 20-30 minutes. Set the timer for 15 minutes and give it a little toss to make sure everything is browning evenly.

And Caramelize

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.53.36 PMSlice 6 bananas and juice several limes until you have 1/4 cup lime juice — most likely, 2 large limes or 4 small limes. Microwave the limes for 10 seconds to get as much as juice as possible. Place 6 tablespoons of butter (3/4 stick) in a sauté pan, along with 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup lime juice. Keep the heat on low until the butter melts. At this point, increase the heat to high and stir the mixture until it browns around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the bananas (and if using, 2 tablespoons of the liqueur, I did not) and stir until the sauce thickly coats them. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add Some Dairy

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.05.53 PMSpoon the caramelized bananas and nut crumble over vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt. Almost looks like Chiberia.

As I write this, it’s Thursday — school is back in session, it’s warming up, and since we happen to be reading the scene in Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson whisks Sarah Brown to Havana, Cuba, we’re doing our best to keep the tropics vibe alive, hey mambo… So how about an even lazier approach:

Banana & Chocolate Chip Panini

Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites

Ingredients

  • Banana
  • Chocolate chips or nutella
  • Spreadable butter
  • Bread

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.09.39 PMThinly slice a banana. Microwave 1/4 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips until they are partly melted (even easier, spread on the nutella.) Butter one side of four slices of bread. Flip the bread to the unbuttered side. Place the banana slices on two slices of bread and spoon the semi-melted chocolate chips over the top. Top with the other two slices of bread, butter side up. Grill on a panini press or sauté pan until gooey.

[Photos: “Josephine Baker,” megpi’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Chiberia 5,” Kathleen Virginia’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Bananas Wrapped in Phyllo with Chocolate Sauce,” Food Thinkers’ photostream, under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Crumble Closeup,” ☃’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Bananas Foster,” ginnerobot’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Vanilla ice cream,” Sofie Dittmann’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Nutella & Banana Panini,” Andurinha’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Talking Documentaries: The Island President

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.08.13 PMI watched a wonderful documentary a few weeks ago that I hope you’ll consider watching if you have some spare vacation time this week. In The Island President, award-winning cinematographer and director Jon Shenk profiles the urgent environmental agenda of the lowest lying country on Earth: the Maldives, a constellation of 1200 islands scattered below India. A three meter rise in sea level would be enough to obliterate the country’s pristine beaches and Sunni Muslim population. In 2008, the Maldives transitioned from a brutal dictatorship to a democratic government under the leadership of Mohammed Nasheed, and a fascinating parallel is drawn between Nasheed’s rise to the presidency, overcoming a relentless military regime, and his next epic political battle: fighting the imminent threat of climate change.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 3.59.39 PMThe movie opens with a panoramic view of the Indian ocean, featuring the graceful underwater waves of a coral reef, large circles of land that dissolve into water, a streak of uninterrupted sky, the overlapping of blues, greens, and turquoises from all sides. Such beauty is juxtaposed with a brief history of former President Gayoom’s repressive regime, during which Nasheed and other outspoken government critics were imprisoned and tortured where upscale resorts now stand. After being repeatedly imprisoned, Nasheed went into exile to continue his reform efforts. When the 2004 tsunami hit, decimating whole islands and reducing GDP by 50 percent, he decided to return to the Maldives. In the words of one government official, his much anticipated return would either result in his death or his becoming president. The latter ended up happening. Within weeks of reclaiming his country, Nasheed realized that the most urgent political issues facing the Maldives all revolved around climate change. Beaches were washing away, the fishing industry had stalled, and rising sea levels threatened to take an entire republic — in essence, a civilization — off the map in the foreseeable future. Nasheed’s response was to take the global lead on reducing carbon emissions, vowing that the Maldives would become carbon neutral by 2019.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.22.48 PMAfter reconstructing this recent history, the film shifts its focus to Nasheed’s efforts to persuade world leaders that in his words, the “annihilation” of the Maldives is an equally urgent global issue. The camera follows Nasheed’s meetings with the British parliament to his dealings at a New York climate conference — his first trip to the U.S. — capturing many snapshots of the developed and developing world’s complacency. Meanwhile, he adopts strong rhetoric: “if you don’t protect the Maldives today, you cannot protect London tomorrow.” It’s very compelling to watch Nasheed’s team move with heightened awareness of their own mortality through a political process that is as murky and unsympathetic as a tsunami itself. For example, a British journalist cheerfully observes in a radio interview that “you really like a fight, don’t you,” to which Nasheed laughs and points out that he’s fighting for his country’s existence. Another scene shows Nasheed lobbying a British politician who smiles nervously and states that supporting democracy in a Muslim country must be an important priority. During a review of global warming statistics for the Copenhagen summit, Nasheed’s audacity is replaced by a grave silence, but he quickly resolves to enlist the support of India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly developing economies the only way he knows how: by presenting the issue in a “green ribbon cutting” format, in other words, a PR opportunity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.28.48 PMYou grow to love this lithe island president, wading into the ocean in a business suit to film public service announcements, conducting underwater cabinet meetings to expose the decrepit state of coral reefs, awkwardly but good-naturedly choking down a hamburger at an American sports bar after a disappointing first day at the New York conference, agreeing wholeheartedly with the London Times headline, “Global Warming like Nazi Invasion.” The Minister of Housing & Environment, Mohamed Aslam, effectively summarizes the unique political situation, or more accurately, apolitical situation of the Maldives: “I don’t even like the word negotiate. With climate, there’s nothing to negotiate.” But of course, the negotiations in Copenhagen are everything, and Nasheed reveals his underlying shrewdness when he makes major concessions to China with the aim of maintaining his country’s VIP status as a climate game-changer. To the disappointment of his delegation, his outspoken idealism gives way to a more calculated approach toward a less tangible outcome: maintaining influence in future talks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.13.52 PMSadly, Nasheed’s voice is silenced by something far more blunt than the complications of international diplomacy. As noted in the closing credits, he was ousted from power in February 2012 by forces loyal to the former dictator — once again, a reminder that the health of our planet is inextricably linked to that seemingly “dirty” word, politics. In the meantime, I’m inspired to be a little nicer to my patch of the planet this new year.

[Photos: “Maldives Sunset,” Sarah Ackerman’s photostream under CC BY 2.0, “Maldives from the air 1,” Commonwealth Secretariat’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Maldives Underwater Cabinet Meeting,” Divers Association of Maldives’ photo stream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Island President,” humanrightsfilmfestival’s photo stream, CC BY-NC 2.0]

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