Paul at the Gamm Theatre

Paul, a play by English playwright Howard Brenton that just opened its North American premiere at Pawucket’s Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, should come with two warnings. One, it advances heretical explanations for Biblical miracles. Two, more importantly, there are strobes.
Now those are over with, I should add that Paul is not offensive for the sake of it. Indeed, as director Tony Estrella points out in the program in an apt quote from Larkin, it reserves for its subject "the maximum of respect with the minimum of credulity." 
The subject is Christ’s resurrection, and it’s treated to a sort of scientific-method revisionism that Christian evolutionists may find welcome and thought provoking, while creationists may balk at the lack of faith. Either way, there’s no doubt that this two-hour play, which is staged on Michael McGarty’s grim set of metal bars and is heavy on male characters, Scripture quotes and shouting, takes its subject seriously.
So did Jesus really rise from the dead? This play’s answer: No. Instead the gentle, enigmatic Jeshua (that’s the Hebrew version of Jesus) survived his crucifixion, aided by a wealthy benefactor who paid off the guards to cut him down early, and hid out in the desert for twenty years with his ex-prostitute wife Mary. That’s how Saul of Tarsus, the one-time rabid persecutor of the nascent sect, came to believe he had visions of a risen Christ. The first vision, on the road to Damascus, was in fact a straightforward visit from a still-wounded Jesus, asking him to go easy on his followers. But Saul, whom historians believe was epileptic, has a fit – suggested in this staging by the strobe and a powerful spotlight that backlights Jesus – that lends the encounter an aura of miraculousness. 
When Jesus and his followers find out the renamed Paul’s mistake, they don’t correct him. Instead Jesus makes a second visit to ask him to go out and spread his word – and again, slightly straining the audience’s credulity, the meeting coincides with a fit. Paul’s faith is strengthened and Jeshua’s followers, anxious to get rid of the odd and overly intense interloper, are happy to send him off – on the condition that he sends back money. He’s surprisingly effective, and so the modern church finds its beginnings.
It’s a sequence of events that haunts Peter, the fisherman turned apostle who knows the truth and yet, in the last moments of the play and on the eve of their deaths, agrees with the obdurate Paul that "Christ is risen." It’s a stunning triumph of faith over reason, and one that, as the Roman emperor Nero points out, is necessary if the faith is to flourish.
Paul is played as a rigid-minded but compelling fanatic by Alexander Platt in a powerful, if not always sympathetic, performance – when Platt quotes the beloved section of First Corinthians that’s so familiar from weddings, it’s hard to buy the sudden talk of love. He’s balanced by the conflicted Peter, played with likeable doubt by Jim O’Brien, who brings gravitas and a lower pitch to what is often a highly wrought production. Paul Goes is a solid Barnabas, although the scene of his conversion falls a little flat, while Karen Carpenter lends an over-the-top gum-chewing aesthetic to Mary, and Cedric Lilly is human if a little sheepish as Jesus. The scene stealer is Kelby T. Akin – you have to wait until the very end for it, but his Nero is crazy like a fox, politically astute and as theatrically costumed as history tells us the real one was. Clad in white body paint, a loin cloth and gauzy accountrements, he’s the embodiment of all that, by the first century AD, was wrong with the Roman Empire – and he’s great fun, something that otherwise you won’t find much of in this earnest production.
Not that there aren’t some worthy ideas here: that a good code of living isn’t sexy enough to survive a charismatic leader’s death, for instance, and that organized religion can distort simpler and better truths. There’s also an interesting hint about how, as words move through different languages, meaning doesn’t just get lost in translation – it gets created, too. But none of it’s really that new or deeply explored. For a play first staged in 2005 that earns a "provocative" billing, Paul is curiously unwilling to approach Jesus as anything other than a distant and enigmatic holy man. Brenton’s kid-glove approach comes off as anachronistic – and Estrella’s production takes it all far too seriously, and ends up too preachy to be worth sitting through.