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Nathan the Wise
by Macey Levin
Many of us feel that this is a terrible time in which to live. Racial hatred, religious intolerance, violence no longer beyond our imaginations permeate our existence. However, it is not only the 21st century that parades this ugliness, but also the world of Gotthold Lessing, an 18th century German playwright who sets his play Nathan the Wise in the Jerusalem of the Christian Crusades. The play, in a new adaptation by Richard Sewell, is currently being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company, in repertory with She Stoops to Conquer. (our review).
The work's theme is based on the concept of brotherhood and that Jew, Christians and Muslims deserve to co-exist without being attacked or denigrated. Nathan proposes that a man should be judged simply as a man and not a member of a particular group. . . that the value of the individual as a human being supersedes his creed or religion.
Newspapers and television advise us these ideas are anathema to some members of the 21st century, just as they have been throughout all of man's existence. Lessing appeals to civilization's positive nature and creates characters that understand the value of brotherhood and tolerance, though history informs us that his plea has been ignored for centuries.
In the play, Jerusalem, governed by the sultan Saladin, is populated by Jews, Christians and Muslims in a very tentative peace. Mistrust guides them through their everyday lives. Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, forms a bond of friendship with the ruler and, through example, brings all but the most fanatical character to acceptance of compassion and accord. The villain of the piece is the ingrained hatred taught by centuries of suspicion and ignorance.
Translator Sewell says he has tried to maintain the tone of the original German; if so, the work careers from florid to vibrant to stilted. The dialogue is laced with extravagant metaphors that cherish words but dilute the impact of many speeches. Though the plot is straightforward, the verbiage sometimes befogs characters' intentions. Lessing, though a founder of German classical drama, is not Shakespeare.
The production is uneven and the acting is not of a consistent quality. Scott Whitehurst as Saladin is a strong presence, sometimes arrogant and manipulative, other times perplexed. Rebecca, Nathan's daughter, is charming in the hands of Eunice Wong. Her devotion to her father and her love for Kurt, a templar knight, are played with a teenager's intensity.
John Camera's Nathan confuses softness for wisdom. Though a stranger in his ancestors' Biblical land, Nathan does not lack strength and fortitude. For the character who is at the core of the story, this Nathan is not strong enough to support it. The knight as performed by Christopher Moore is either angry or confused, with little in between. Celeste Ciulla, John Livingstone Rolle, Edward Seamon and Dominic Cuskern serve the script and their characters well. Sally Kemp who stumbled over several lines and seemed to be in a different play, weakly portrays Daja, Rebecca's Christian guardian.
Using minimal props on a virtually bare stage with various acting levels and entrances through the audience, director Barbara Bosch moves the play seamlessly. Though the pace falters when the language gets in the way, she allows the script to tell its story and to make its statements.
Though the production is flawed, it is a valuable work whose lessons are imperative to heal a divided and cruel world.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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