Midrash: 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.
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.
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.
Then 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.”
As 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]