The opening scene of Silk Road Rising's previous production, Jonas Hassen Khemeri's Invasion!, was a po-faced parody of flat, stiffly formal stage drama. It was a red herring, a setup to be mocked and interrupted by a pair of rowdy teenagers planted in the audience—two of Invasion!'s actual characters, who took over the stage and the narrative after dismissing the practioners of tedious, deadly serious theater.
I kept thinking of that scene while taking in Silk Road's follow-up, Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's religious pageant Paulus. Lerner (whose Pangs of the Messiah was produced by Silk Road in 2009) goes after an admirably compelling idea for historical fiction: a psychological portrait of the apostle Paul, or Paulus (Daniel Cantor), imagining his mindset as he spread the gospel of Christ and, in the process, broke away from establishment Judaism.
Yet there's far too little dramatization in Lerner's plodding treatment of the topic, which shifts muddily back and forth between Paulus's final trip to Judea and the lead-up to his execution some years later. In Judea, he's attended by a loyal Greek servant (Anthony DiNicola) while clashing with high priest Hananiah (Bill McGough) and a postulated ex-wife (Carolyn Hoerdemann) and scholarly nephew (Glenn Stanton); in prison, he's tormented by a trio of guards (D'Wayne Taylor, Kroydell Galima and Scott Shimizu).
And in both murky settings, he's visited by two imagined interlocutors: the vainglorious Emperor Nero (Stanton again, playing a ukulele rather than a fiddle) and an aged, somewhat rueful Jesus (Torrey Hanson), wondering all these years after his death and resurrection if his tactics, and now Paulus's, are correct.
Everyone involved argues and argues and argues in stilted phrasings (possibly attributable to Hillel Halkin's translation from Lerner's Hebrew) and stentorian tones about the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin and the Zealots and the 613 commandments of the Torah in repetitive volleys that only reminded this Protestant agnostic of my adolescent Sunday School classes. Director Jimmy McDermott's oddly static staging doesn't do much to enhance matters; only Elsa Hiltner's attractively draped pseudo-period costumes provide visual interest.