The Unofficial Messiah | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Unofficial Messiah

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'SHUA

Marbleworks Theatre

at Niles College Seminary

The search for the historical Jesus--the flesh-and-blood man behind the Bible stories--is a frustrating one. Except for a few passing mentions of Jesus by Roman chroniclers, virtually everything we know about the man comes from the gospels, which aren't reliable as historical sources. That means scholars must do a lot of speculating.

The Reverend William Burke, a Catholic priest in suburban Streamwood, does some provocative speculating in 'Shua, a play he wrote in 1988. 'Shua consists of a one-hour monologue delivered by a childhood friend of Jesus. "His real name was Yeshua," the man begins, referring to the Aramaic form of the common Hebrew name Joshua. "But when I was young, I couldn't say all that. I just said, 'Shua, and the name caught on."

The narrator recalls the simple events of a childhood friendship--playing with other boys, attending synagogue school together, getting in trouble with their parents. According to the narrator, 'Shua spoke with a stutter, and he was unusually sensitive--he would weep at the sight of a dead bird. He also had a tendency to take the rabbi's teachings to heart. When the rabbi made the boys memorize God's words--"It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifices"--'Shua decided to bring some bread to an old prostitute who was starving to death alone in her shack. The rabbi was enraged that the boy was consorting with an unclean person and dragged 'Shua down to the ritual cleansing baths, but he also was moved by the boy's gesture--a foreshadowing of the moral authority that Yeshua would develop as a man.

'Shua captures the excitement of the search for the historical Jesus by portraying him in two startling but utterly plausible ways. First, the play focuses on the idea of Jesus as a human being. He had boyhood chums; as an adolescent he became interested in girls; as a young man he scratched out a living somehow. And like all humans, he observed the world around him, absorbed ideas, and forged a unique outlook on life.

Second, the play places Jesus squarely in the center of Jewish culture, which is precisely where recent scholarship places him. He was born a Jew, he was raised a Jew, and he lived as a Jew. He may have disagreed with the rabbis, as Burke suggests in his play, but scholars find little evidence that Jesus intended to start a new religion. Jesus was not even officially declared "God" until the Council of Nicea, held three centuries after his death.

Burke also suggests that the zeal Jesus brought to his teaching may have had something to do with political awakening. It makes sense: the Romans harshly oppressed the Jews in Palestine, and visionary leaders--Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Marx, Lenin--often emerge as opponents of an unjust political system.

Given its subject matter, 'Shua may sound like the kind of play that belongs in a church basement. But it's far from a devout, simplistic rendering of Christian themes. Conservative Christians might even find Burke's intensely human portrayal of Jesus slightly offensive.

But 'Shua is a potent, well-crafted drama that is rich in detail and consistently engaging. Burke clearly knows how to tell a story. On top of that, the production at the Marbleworks Theatre in Skokie is directed and performed by Charles Gerace, who wrings an extra measure of drama from 'Shua with his passionate and well-paced performance.

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