THE BASICS: NATHAN THE WISE, the 1779 Enlightenment play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in a version by Edward Kemp directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte is at Stratford’s “black box” venue, their “Studio Theatre.” Extended through October 19, it’s in repertory with four other plays at that venue, and a dozen plays and musicals overall in Stratford, Ontario. (800-567-1600) https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/ Runtime: 2 hours, 45 minutes (1:18 – intermission – 1:08)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Set in Jerusalem in the 12th century during the Third Crusade, it shows us how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened Muslim sultan Saladin, and a Christian Templar, are able to bring together “the three Abrahamic faiths” – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. As the play opens, Nathan has returned from a business trip to learn that there was a house fire and that a Christian Knight Templar had rushed into the flames and saved Nathan’s (adopted) daughter Rachel. It’s a love story, a bit of a mystery, a comedy, and a great philosophical ramble.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Whenever we drive back home from visiting a repertory festival such as Stratford or Shaw where we have seen multiple plays, we always play the game of “rank them.” And while we only saw five plays at Stratford, without a doubt, at the top of the list, right after Kate Hennig’s MOTHER’S DAUGHTER (also at the Studio Theatre) was NATHAN THE WISE. Our only regret is that we didn’t get to see (also at the Studio Theatre) Wajdi Mouawad’s BIRDS OF A KIND about Wahida, an Arab-American woman, and Eitan, A Jewish geneticist, who fall in love in New York City.
Stratford does that a lot – pairing up plays. For example, also at the Studio Theatre, this summer we saw Shakespeare’s HENRY VIII, about the king who was the father of “Bloody Mary” – the main character in the play MOTHER’S DAUGHTER. Is it a coincidence that year after year we try to see everything offered at that one venue? No, it’s because these days that’s where you get the newest or edgiest plays. In that regard, Stratford is a lot like the Shaw Festival in that both have a big “Festival Theatre,” both have a classic, red velour seated proscenium theater (at Shaw it’s “The Royal George” and at Stratford it’s “The Avon”) and both have a “black-box” style theater called “The Studio.” And, next year, Stratford will have a fourth venue as the old “Tom Patterson” theater will have been completely rebuilt from the ground up.
Is Nathan really wise? Judge for yourself. When Saladin, who holds the power of life and death, asks Nathan “Which is the one true faith?” Nathan better get it right. So he tells Saladin “The Ring Parable.” For generations, fathers had passed on to their favorite son an heirloom ring with the power to make the wearer pleasing in the eyes of both God and his fellow man. But one father had three sons, and he loved them equally, and in moments of weakness promised the ring to each one. Looking to keep his promise, he had two duplicates made, and on his deathbed, gave an identical looking ring to each of the three boys. Naturally the boys quarreled over who owned the “real ring.” A judge told them they might never know, but to find out each one should live a life so exemplary that the “real” ring’s powers could be manifest. In other words, to live a life pleasing in the eyes of God and man and not expect the ring to make that happen. In that way, the rings are like religion. We may or may not possess the one true religion, the “real” religion, but we should live a life so pleasing in the eyes of God and man that whatever religion we profess will be seen as the one true faith.
While the play itself may be over 200 years old, the translation was made in 2003 and it has an easy contemporary conversational ring to both the dialog and development of some of the characters. For example, Sittah, Saladin’s sister, who is one very strong, clever, self-assured young woman. And, adding a surprise element with a touch of mystery, Nathan “himself” is played by a woman, Diane Flacks, in a standout performance.
It’s a message of tolerance and understanding that’s (still) right for our time. And courtesy and respect for others is clearly modeled before our very eyes. Whether putting on a new play or an older play that has not been seen in a long time, both Stratford and Shaw really sweat the details, and also give these plays sufficient rehearsal time and preview runs to iron out all the wrinkles. It may appear to be long, coming in at 2-3/4 hours, but it flies by.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!