BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's NATHAN THE WISE is A Thought Provoking Exploration of Faith and Humanity
On June 15, a moving, and at times very funny production of NATHAN THE WISE opened at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre. Directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, this production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 play is a thought-provoking exploration into humanity, the concept of "the other," and the meaning of tolerance.
Nathan is a likeable Jewish man who finds himself building bridges and friendships with characters of different religious faiths, only to have the tragedies from his past, threaten the happiness he has found for himself in the present. Taking on the titular role, is Diane Flacks. So much of this play is about how people are deeper than the assumptions we make about them, and so to have a woman play this particular male role is very clever. Making her Stratford debut, Flacks is incredibly charismatic and nuanced as Nathan. She makes us laugh, makes us think, and breaks our hearts with her performance.
Flacks is not the only one making her Stratford debut in this production. In fact, it is stunning how many festival debuts there are amongst this company. It is certainly the most I have ever seen in one play.
Another actor making his debut this season is Danny Ghantous as the Muslim sultan, Saladin. I admittedly have not seen this production done before, but from what I understand, Ghantous is a more youthful version of Saladin than what we might typically see on stage. This was a wonderful choice. It is evident on more than one occasion that Saladin is far less savvy than his sister Sittah (Miranda Calderon). There is an element of naiveté to him and his youthful appearance adds to this. Along with that naiveté is an open-mindedness though. Although it is certainly not true that only the younger generations are enlightened and open-minded, it makes sense that this young man who has been thrust into a position of power would be more open to seeking the perspective of others. Ghantous is excellent in this role. He is often funny, but also demonstrates his emotional range. He has a subtle, yet powerfully moving silent moment as he processes the meaning of parable that Nathan is telling him. This parable, of a man who bestows rings to each of his sons, is so well told by Flacks as Nathan, that the audience and Saladin almost become one as we reflect on it together.
Set Designer Teresa Przbylski does well with the intimate Studio Theatre stage to create a stunning but generic backdrop of three stone slabs that can represent various locations in Jerusalem. Duarte's direction keeps the story moving and keeps the audience immersed. The choice to have two soldiers (played by Hannah Miller and Aladeen Tawfeek) be constantly scanning the audience-even at exists at the start of intermission, is a clever way to keep us feeling immersed in this world. Miller and Tawfeek show up again later as townspeople and are delightful as they engage the audience once again.
The entire cast of this production is excellent, each actor doing well to flesh out their character to a point where everyone's humanity can be explored. Whether a character is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, each one is seeking connection and family. It's the similarities between these characters that are highlighted, along with the fact that those similarities are sometimes only found when someone takes the time to truly consider another person's point of view.
It is easy to understand why this play is often lauded as a masterpiece and this production certainly does it justice.
NATHAN THE WISE continues in Repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 11th.
Photo Credit: David Hou