by Marilyn Lester
Nathan the Wise, a remarkable work advocating religious tolerance, was published in 1779 by the Lutheran pastor, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Ironically, because of Church intolerance, Lessing never saw his work performed. The play made it’s debut in Berlin in 1783, after the playwright’s death. Nathan the Wise has since become a treasure of classic theater. In this CSC production, Edward Kemp’s 2003 translation transforms Lessing’s blank verse into language that’s both respectful to the original and perceptively modern and relevant. As the rich Jew, Nathan, F. Murray Abraham once again demonstrates why he’s one of the most talented and brilliant actors of our time.
Lessing modeled Nathan after one of his best friends, Moses Mendelssohn, an important German-Jewish philosopher and writer of the day. The play advances a vision of enlightenment with intricate themes of friendship, tolerance, and unconditional love. The action is set in 1192 in Jerusalem, during a truce in the warring of the Third Crusade. Yet, what Lessing knew is that even before the Crusades, the region has always been in contention: first among ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians for economic dominance, and later for religious dominance among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
This historical thread of strife is immediately apparent in Tony Straige’s striking set design. The large, open performing area is spare – chairs along the back wall and carpets. But it is that back wall that’s unsettling – and a constant reminder of human folly. It’s covered by a stark blank-and-white photographic mural of destruction. An empty street of seemingly ageless houses is mostly reduced to rubble. A rooftop satellite dish gives the time frame away. Once this destruction might have been caused by an earthquake, but now more likely it’s the result of mortar fire and bombing. Further connection of the modern to antiquity is in the initial costuming of the actors in contemporary dress. As the play’s action begins, they don evocative, symbol-laden white-and-black robes. Costume designer Anita Yavich has given these garments an almost cartoon feel, heightening the irony of the themes of the play.
At the top of Nathan the Wise, Daya, a Christian woman (Caroline Lagerfelt) who is a companion to Nathan’s daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) informs him that a Templar knight (Stark Sands) has rushed into a fire in the house to save the young Jewish girl from burning alive. It turns out the Templar was spared execution by the enlightened Muslim leader, Saladin (Austin Durant) because he resembles the Sultan’s long-missing brother, Assad. The Templar, a European whose name turns out to be Conrade, is, like many modern young men, confused and angry – emotions central to the plot and its themes. Through a series of plot twists and interactions with supporting characters – a dervish, Al-Hafi (George Abud), an old knight turned monk (John Christopher Jones), and the Sultan’s sister Sittah (Shiva KalaiselVan) – various themes are addressed and examined. Symbology is also a strong part of the work, especially through the device of the chess game. The ensemble cast is pitch-perfect in their various portrayals. Lagerfelt, doubling as the intolerant, dogmatic Patriarch – head of the Christian Church – is chillingly fierce, pointing up the great irony of the play, that Nathan the Jew is the most “Christian” of them all.
The philosophical climax of Nathan the Wise is the “ring parable,” spoken by Nathan when Saladin asks him which religion is the true one. If, for no other reason, Abraham’s delivery of this narrative is cause to see this play performed. The actor’s authenticity and understanding of the text is masterfully compelling as he tells the tale, and muses about who we are in relation to the roles we are compelled to play.
The climax of the action of the play is a touching, joyous conclusion. As strands of plot come together, they make cohesive Lessing’s core belief that unity and kindness are the most important aspects of our humanity. Through beautiful acting this exquisite conclusion also may bring a tear to the eye. Kudos to the cast for navigating the text, with its symbology and foreshadowing, to deliver the reveal as a wonderful surprise. Kudos also to director Brian Kulick who paced the work briskly and intelligently. With very few exits and entrances he kept the action moving without distraction, in a natural rhythm and flow.
Others to be commended for their fine work on Nathan the Wise are Joe Novak for lighting design, Matt Stine for sound design and Hebrew dialect coach and translator, Charlotte Cohn.
Nathan the Wise Through May at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13 Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues). www.classicstage.org
Photos: Richard Termine