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A CurtainUp Review
Nathan the Wise
By Charles Wright

I don't believe we ever lose the superstitions of our race. We drink them in with our mother's milk, and we may mock them but they are bred into our bones.— The young Knight Templar in Nathan the Wise

Must Jews and Christians be always Jews and Christians and only humans afterwards? Or like me will you stand here and say it is enough to be a man.— Nathan, a rich Jew in Jerusalem known among his neighbors as "Nathan the Wise," speaking to the Templar

F. Murray Abraham, Caroline Lagerfelt (rear) & Erin Neufer (Photo Credit: Richard Termine)
Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing marks the end of Brian Kulick's 13-year tenure as Artistic Director at Classic Stage Company (CSC).

This 18th century drama, famous but not familiar, is a plea for ecumenism and ethnic tolerance. In light of recent violent incidents (in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, for instance), motivated by racial animus and theological contempt, Nathan the Wise is a work ripe for rediscovery

Lessing (1729-1781), a major philosopher of the German Enlightenment, spread his views on religion, politics, and ethics in pamphlets and plays. He probably chose to address the themes of Nathan the Wise in verse drama to avoid the censorship he faced as a pampleteer. No public performance took place during Lessing's life, but the first edition of Nathan the Wise was a best-seller at the celebrated book fair in Leipzig, epicenter of German publishing in the 18th century.

Set in Jerusalem during the Crusades, when European Christians were trying to wrest the so-called Holy Land from Muslim governance, Nathan the Wise involves Christian, Jewish, and Muslim characters discovering, by chance, that they are connected to one another in ways beyond their wildest imaginings. The plot has some surprises, but Lessing's original text (which, without cuts, would run at least twice as long as the two-hour CSC production) is short on action and long on debate.

Director Kulick has chosen an English translation by Edward Kemp that recasts Lessing's verse dialogue in ear-pleasing prose. The script has a contemporary ring throughout without seeming slangy or anachronistic. Kemp, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, has streamlined the action, making this Nathan the Wise more dramatic than the original and less like a treatise.

Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham might have made Nathan, elder statesman of Jerusalem's Jewish enclave, a star turn. With his resonant voice and commanding presence, however, Abraham is like the concertmaster of a chamber orchestra, leading without calling undue attention to himself. Anyone who remembers Abraham primarily as Salieri in the film version of Amadeus (or, perhaps, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night or the critic in the 2014 revival of It's Only a Play) will be struck by the unmannered mastery with which he embodies the benevolent Nathan.

Kulick's well-calibrated ensemble also features Stark Sands as the young Christian Knight Templar, Austin Durant as Saladin, sultan of the city's Muslim community, and two CSC favorites, Caroline Lagerfelt and John Christopher Jones. Also on hand are George Abud, Shiva Kalaislevan, and Erin Neufer.

The production is splendid looking. The top-notch designers, most of whom work regularly at CSC, have made the most of a frugal Off-Broadway budget and the modest playing space.

A back-wall panorama in black, grey, and white ties Lessing's text to the present day. The vast image is a lane of bombed-out dwellings, presumably a wide-angle photograph from contemporary Jerusalem, with a satellite dish atop one of the badly damaged buildings indicating the recent vintage of the image. Scenic designer Tony Straiges employs three Persian carpets and several simple chair to reconfigure the nearly bare stage to represent various locations. Straiges and lighting designer Joe Novak keep the action moving, with one scene bleeding smoothly, almost cinematically, into the next.

Nathan the Wise is an admirable valedictory. Consistent with all his years as artistic director, this production demonstrates Brian Kulick's dedication to first-rate acting, his devotion to underappreciated texts, and his commitment to theater as a means for ethical discussion of real-world issues.

Nathan the Wise By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Adapted By Edward Kemp
Directed By Brian Kulick
Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Nathan), George Abud (Al-Hafi), Austin Durant (Saladin), John Christopher Jones (Brother), Shiva Kalaiselvan (Sittah), Caroline Lagerfelt (Daya/Patriarch), Erin Neufer (Rachel), Stark Sands (Templar)
Set design by Tony Straiges
Costumes by Anita Tavich
Lighting by Joe Novak
Sound by Matt Stine
Stage Manager: Kristin M. Herrick
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minuts, includes 1 intermission
Classic Stage 136 East 13th Street
From 3/23/16; opening 4/13/16; closing 5/01/16
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $60 on weeknights and $65 on weekends Reviewed by Charles Wright at 4/09/16 press preview
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