PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Too many religious dramas lack, well, drama. But that's hardly the case with "Paul," a re-telling of the resurrection story that's making its North American debut at the Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre. Bill Gale went along on the Road to Damascus.
Of course, the term "agent provocateur" is decidedly French, referring to someone who just loves to be a troublemaker. But it also fits very well the English playwright Howard Brenton who's been a provocateur for decades now. Not well known here in the States, Brenton has caused all kinds of kerfuffle's in Britain with plays that run from debunking Winston Churchill and World War II heroism to linking the savage Roman invasion of the British isles to the Brit's own treatment of Northern Ireland.
Out of fashion for a decade or so, the 68-year-old Brenton is back. This time he takes a skeptical look at the resurrection of Jesus and the story of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus. His play and production makes Paul and Jesus and Peter and the founding of Christianity alive and striking sparks once again. "Paul" at the Gamm may well set your teeth on edge but it is undeniably a first-rate piece of theater.
Playwright Brenton once said that he considers the theater "a real bear-pit" and he's returned to the pit with this play beginning with Paul chained in a Roman jail and going on to all kinds of vexation.
He proposes that Paul (then the Jewish punisher of Christians, Saul) had his great meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus through an epileptic episode. He posits that Christ survived the cross and was snuck away by his followers. He opines that Mary Magdalene then married Jesus - and lived to regret it. That's just a quick rundown and, perhaps, makes the work sound little more than a child-ish prank. But "Paul" is much more. What Brenton has accomplished is to bring the Biblical days alive. From vicious Roman guards to Jesus himself, it bursts with life displaying real people, gutsy and scared, beaten and never-giving up. Playwright Brenton may have been disingenuous when he called this play just a "what-if" presentation. But he has surely put the feel of the real into it.
So, too has this Gamm production. It begins with Michael McGarty's barebones set. A jungle of metal poles and a few wood platforms moves to the days of Corinth and Jerusalem, Arabia and Rome. Tony Estrella has directed with bold drive and just enough reserve to allow you to be surprised and then come up with your own "what if" scenario.
Performances are filled with belief. Alexander Platt, yet another graduate of the Trinity Rep Conservatory, turns Saul/Paul into a man conflicted and real, and vibrant always, in a super piece of stage craft. Jim O'Brian makes Peter into a guy without a center, a "slippery rock" as Brenton calls him -- and has him say, "Deeply religious men can be deeply embarrassing." Karen Carpenter as Mary Magdalene is frustrated, sexy and tough all at once, as she says "Sometimes I think men want religion more than sex!"
Kelby T. Akin turns the Emperor Nero in to a raving sadist. Dressed in David T. Howard's fairy-tale costume of provocative and feminine white, he gives the play a brand new look.
The truth is many theatergoers may not agree with this play's re-write of the greatest tale ever told. But "Paul," filled with vibrant life and meaningful death is a work that may just make you think.
"Paul" continues at the Gamm Theatre though April 17th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for WRNI.
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