Silk Road Rising Mounts A Preachy PAULUS ‘de la Mancha’
Religious plays are a tricky sort for the author’s intent to be heard amidst the biblical interpretations of the subject matter, albeit of the readers and the scholars. There are shows that greatly succeed because the morality of the piece is left in the hand of the viewer. Jesus Christ Superstar (though a musical) is a great example of how the genre can work exceedingly well as is The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Steven Adly Gurgis’ play that puts Judas on trial in purgatory for “betraying” Christ. In both Superstar and Iscariot, religion is almost a non-factor as it is the story of a relatable person that the audience becomes connect to.
This brings us to Silk Road Rising’s latest offering, the World premiere of Motti Lerner’s Paulus (translated by Hillel Halkin). Paulus (aka Saul) is said to the be the actual founder of the Christian church who was “reborn” after he had a vision of a resurrected Jesus while on his way to arrest a Christian preacher. Much like his predecessor, Saul made waves amongst the rank and file while spreading his newfound faith and was beheaded by King Nero after much back and forth regarding legal jurisdictional matters.
Director Jimmy McDermott has brought together a first rate cast to tell the story, especially with this leading man, Daniel Cantor who turns in a complex and emotionally riveting performance as Saul. Glen Stanton also does some fine work as an ego-centric Nero who at times is as conflicted as Pontius Pilate, until his ego is bruised to the point of no return by Paulus.
The problem with the production is not with the director or cast, but lies with the adapted material itself. Mr. Lerner’s script becomes overly labored in pretentious religious debates instead of letting the conflict arise naturally from Saul’s circumstances. More problematic is that Lerner relies too many times on Cerventes’ Don Quioxte (Saul has his own Sancho Panza who goes by the name of Trophimos, as well as an Innkeeper and serving wench while dreaming an impossible dream of salvation) and seems to pull exact scenes from Gurgis’ play (especially those involving Jesus and Saul, wherein The Last Days of Judas Iscariot it was Judas and Jesus).
With Paulus and their prior show, Invasion!, there seems to be a change in type of material the company is choosing, especially when a playwright’s point of view is almost shoved in your face. Theatre companies are living and breathing beings and the artists’ that create them must be allowed room to grow and evolve. But the cautionary yellow light is flashing in hopes that Silk Road will get back to the great storytelling about the human condition that I have come to count on and respect.