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Theater Review: Paul at The Gamm Theatre

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Perhaps the greatest agony a saint endures is the imprisonment of iconography. Trapped by lore and liturgy, rendered flat and hard in painter's strokes and shards of stained glass, saints are barely conjurable into three dimensions, much less flesh, humanity, speech.

And so how stirring to witness Saint Paul, the New Testament's chief proselytizer, take the stage at the Gamm Theatre in sinewy, impassioned flesh, in Howard Brenton's Paul.
For take it he does. It begins the instant light cracks the darkened set, where a jailed Paul the Apostle (Alexander Platt) strains against his chains and pleads with his Christ to acknowledge him. This is AD65 and he is in Rome, awaiting execution. Platt's agony, bristling both in the twisting of his lean body and sharpness of his cries, renders this saint's looming martyrdom altogether real.

The price of epiphany

From this dramatic precipice, playwright Brenton retraces Paul's steps, literally, from an epiphanic moment on the road to Damascus some 30 years prior. In flashback, we meet Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen of Jewish faith who

zealously performs his work of scouring the landscape of Jews who follow Christ.

But Saul has fits, medically so, and left alone to guard their camp one night, he seizes violently and is met by Christ (or Yeshua as he was called). Is it really Yeshua? Is it a hallucination accompanying a fit of epilepsy or madness? Or is it divine? While these questions hang over the audience, Saul awakens blind, certain, and converted. Christ has spoken to him. He's got a new mission, and changes his name to Paul.

Inhabiting a zealot

It's wonderful to watch Platt inhabit a zealot's form. WIth his hair wiry and wild and with eyes that dart and roll, he scratches the lunatic edge of sainthood. And yet with long and elegant fingers, which Platt works in gesture, he presents a man beautifully in control. In a pliant tenor, he voices Paul's speeches, declarations, even toss-away lines, with perfect realness.

These disparate elements combine to make a Paul like no one we've ever known, and yet utterly familiar. He is vain, lacks self-awareness, but drives forward with a purity that is irresistable. He's alluring and a bit scary. It's a rich, memorable performance.

A tough act to surround

The men and women surrounding Paul, all as iconic, bring certain surprises to the story, but none as compellingly as Platt. Anthony Goes' Barnabus exhibits earnest striving. Karen Carpenter's Mary Magdalene gives us a prostitute who may be just a bit too coarse to fit into the tonal landscape in her early scenes, but touchingly reveals her fear of being worshipped in the wake of Christ's death. Cedric Lilly's Yeshua has more of the confident grace of a gifted athlete than of a messiah, which is fresh and appealing. And Kelby T. Akin gives Nero a sexy intelligence and humor that makes a viewer wish he'd stuck around longer. In this form, anyway.

Unfortunately, the man who spends the most time with Paul, Jim O'Brien's Peter, forces his role and becomes a tiring counterpoint to the certainty of Paul, as the two confront their mortality in the prisons of Rome. It's an unfortunate lack, as it is Peter's doubt, in Brenton's vision, that drives the final portion of the play. And a reveal about his role in some Christ-related sleight-of-hand that shakes the whole resurrection story to its core. In a more subtle actor's hands, this could have been chilling, shattering. Unfortunately, it's mostly just hoarse.

Strong, simple setting 

Finally, the inventive simplicity of Michael McGarty's set of chrome bars that frame and sometimes confine the movements of Paul, works perfectly, as do the bold and beautifully designed tyopgraphical projections of place and time. Why do we gasp when we see "Damascus" in such large letters, illuminating a stage? Or "Corinth?" Or "Rome?" Perhaps because somehow, more than an expensive set of columns, porticos, and distant landscapes, these words that are so potent to the Biblical story (and to history), have bigger impact. It's great production design to allow these places to state themselves, largely.

This is not a perfect play. Some of the exposition is clunky and some of Paul's speeches feel like marked-up copies of the epistles. So it's not perfect, but neither was the saint who inspired it. But with an actor in Alexander Platt who gives us a Paul to touch, and with a play that strives to humanize a story made flat with millennia of reverent rhetoric, we may (and should) receive its gift.
Paul, North American Premiere, by Howard Brenton & directed by Tony Estrella, runs through April 17. The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket. For more information and tickets, call 723-4266 or go to www.gammtheatre.org.
Photos: Peter Goldberg
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