Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nathan the Wise **

For his final production as artistic director of Classic Stage Company (CSC), Brian Kulick has chosen this 1779 “drama of ideas” by German Enlightenment philosopher/playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Set in Jerusalem in 1192 during the Third Crusade, it makes a case for religious tolerance between Jews, Muslims and Christians. The title character (F. Murray Abraham) is a wealthy Jewish merchant, just back from a long journey, who learns that his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) has been rescued from a fire by a mysterious Knight Templar (Stark Sands) who had been spared from execution by the Muslim ruler Saladin (Austin Durant) because of his strong resemblance to Saladin’s late brother. The Templar at first vehemently refuses to have anything to do with the Jew Nathan, but is rather suddenly won over by his intellect and soon falls in love with his daughter. Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt), Rachel’s Christian nurse, tells the Templar a secret that puts Nathan at great risk from the Patriarch of Jerusalem (also played by Lagerfelt). The other characters are Al-Hafi (George Abud), a dervish who provides comic relief; Sittah (Shiva Kalaiselvan), Saladin’s clever sister; and Brother (John Christopher Jones), a monk with a secret. The central portion of the play deals with a perilous challenge from Saladin for Nathan to tell him which religion most pleases God. Nathan adroitly handles the situation by telling a parable about three rings, one of which has magical powers. A father who loved his three sons equally had two duplicates made and told each son that he had been given the original ring. A wise judge told the sons that the only way to determine who had the magic ring was for each to behave as if worthy of it. Saladin succumbs to the powers of Nathan’s intellect and takes him as his friend. A pair of revelations about two orphans provides a rather hackneyed ending. I found some of Kulick’s choices perplexing. The entire back wall of Tony Straiges’s set is covered with a sepia photograph of a bombed-out street in a place like Syria or Gaza. This wall is covered by an unexplained projected Arabic script at the beginning of each act. There is a row of chairs across the back of this wall where the actors sometimes sit when they are not in a scene. The floor is covered with oriental carpets which are rolled, unrolled or pulled up at various moments. In a framing device, the play opens with the actors in modern dress arguing in Arabic until Abraham shushes them so he can tell a story. The costume design by Anita Yavich has each don an attractive white robe covered with ornamental calligraphy appropriate to the character’s religion. The actors wait for the second act to begin while Durant and Abud say their evening prayers. What we are to make of this mishmash of imagery was not clear to me. The acting is uneven. Lagerfelt was very good in both roles. Sands coped well with the abrupt changes in his character's behavior. Abraham was blessedly restrained. It was a minor pleasure to be exposed to this rarely seen curiosity. Running time: two hours.

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