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BWW Review: F. Murray Abraham and Stark Sands Tackle Religious Tolerance In NATHAN THE WISE


Once upon a time there were Jews, Muslims and Christians living in relative peace and harmony in 12th Century Jerusalem.

Stark Sands and F. Murray Abraham
(Photo: Richard Termine)

Okay, maybe that's a little simplistic, but German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 entry, NATHAN THE WISE, does play a bit like theatre for young audiences in Classic Stage Company's new mounting directed by the theatre's soon-departing artistic director Brian Kulick.

The play's call for religious tolerance was controversial in its time, and performances were forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church until 1783, two years after the playwright's death.

Edward Kemp's presentational adaptation begins with an ensemble of actors arguing in their preferred tongues over which of their cultures gets the privilege of telling the story. Audience members not versed in Arabic, Hebrew, German and Latin may not get the point. Finally, F. Murray Abraham, playing the actor who will be Nathan, insists on English.

Austin Durant and Shiva Kalaiselvan
(Photo: Richard Termine)

Set in 1192, during the Third Crusade, the story is set in motion when the wealthy Jewish merchant Nathan (wry-humored and amusingly philosophical in Abraham's hands) arrives back from business to learn that his adopted daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) was rescued from a fire by a Templar knight (intense Stark Sands). Despite the fact that he was sent by his church to conquer her people, Rachel and the knight start getting sweet on each other, but the truth about her parentage comes into play.

The unnamed knight is a prisoner of Sultan Saladin (a gregarious Austin Durant), who spared his life because of the young man's resemblance to his late brother. Saladin's sister (Shiva Kalaiselvan) suggests asking Nathan for a loan to fund his fight against the invaders. When the two men meet, Nathan answers his friend's riddle regarding which religion is the true one with a parable about a father who has but one valuable ring to leave to his three sons.

With the actors wearing contemporary clothing that they cover with period robes, chairs set upstage for those not in a scene to wait and the environment depicted by a projected photo of a seemingly war-torn modern middle-eastern locale, Kulick's production draws obvious parallels between yesterday and today, but while pleasant, sweet and well-acted, there's little in NATHAN THE WISE to stimulate interest, aside from its value as a theatrical artifact.

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