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Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre

Nathan the Wise runs at the Edalvich DCJCC through April 10th.

Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre
Eric Hissom as Nathan in Theater J's production of Nathan the Wise, playing through April 10. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What happens when you take three warring religions, long-held secrets, and conflicting ideas of "good," and stick them all under the hot sun of Jerusalem?

Naturally, you'd assume a volatile explosion, but, fortunately, it turns out that putting those elements in the hands of Theater J and Folger Theatre will give you something quite wonderful.

The collaboration between Theater J and Folger Theatre, Nathan the Wise, is the world premiere of Michael Bloom's adaptation of the 1779 Gotthold Ephriam Lessing play about a Jewish man, Nathan, famed for his wisdom, living in Jerusalem under the Sultan's rule in 1192, during the Crusades. The original play was heavily influenced by Shakespeare, even written in iambic pentameter in its original German, and was inspired by and dedicated to Lessing's friend, the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsson. The play enjoyed an immense popularity until it was banned in Germany under the Nazi regime, and was one of the first plays produced in Europe after the end of the Second World War. For this particular production, DC writer-director Michael Bloom revisited the original German text for his translations and adaptations, creating a new take on a beloved story.

Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre
Jo Twiss as Daya, Em Whitworth as Rachel, and Eric Hissom as Nathan in Theater J's production of Nathan the Wise, playing through April 10. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Following the failure of the handshake truce between Sultan Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lionheart, Jerusalem settles into an uneasy routine; the city houses Muslims, Jews, and Christians, but is under control of the Muslim Sultan and his allies while surrounded by Crusaders. Jews enjoy the Sultan's protection, but live in a tentative status, and Christians also find themselves in a precarious position under the Sultan's rule. Only one Templar Knight remains within the city limits, a young man who was spared execution by the Sultan. While the Crusaders regroup and plot to retake the city, the Sultan works to stave off the attack and maintain the peace within the city walls. Amidst all this, Nathan returns home from a business trip to the Far East to find out his home was nearly burned down, and his daughter, Rachel, was rescued by the wayward Templar Knight, who has evaded all attempts at thanks. Nathan tracks him down to arrange a meeting so his daughter, who believes she has been rescued by an angel, can ease her mind with the knowledge of her savior and thank him properly. While dealing with these arrangements, he is summoned to the Sultan's palace, not, as al-Hafi, the Sultan's treasurer and Nathan's friend forewarns, for funds, but for his famed wisdom. What starts off as separate journeys for reconciliation and truth soon become entangled paths of secrets, warring faiths and nations, and tests on even the truest relationships.

Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre
Sorab Wadia as Al-Hafi in Theater J's production of Nathan the Wise, playing through April 10. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Part of what makes this production so compelling is the story itself - one of the most powerful scenes is the one in which Nathan eschews the Sultan's demand that he make the case for Judaism as the superior religion to instead explain how all three religions can be equally right and wrong, but their ties to our individual histories are what make them compelling to each person, and the increasingly frantic and comedic ending scene is one of the funniest I've enjoyed this season - but it's also thanks to the incredible talent attached to this show. At the top, there's Theater J and Folger Theatre - Nathan the Wise also marks the premiere of Folger's new Director of Programming and Artistic Director, Karen Ann Daniels, who is a welcome addition to the DC theater scene. Theater J's Artistic Director, Adam Immerwahr, steps into the Director's seat for this production, and adapter Bloom was also directly involved with the production. Supporting the creative heads is an artistic crew that deserves immense amounts of praise, especially in this particularly difficult time: Set Designer Paige Hathaway captures Jerusalem's signature skylines and bricks beautifully, and her team managed to pull off a difficult feat with limited supplies and resources; the set is then enhanced by Colin K Bills' excellent lighting, which shows off the sets to great effect. Costume designer Ivania Stack (whose work continues to awe me with each production) created and sourced stunning pieces that perfectly conveyed each character's unique personality and status, and managed to stitch together gorgeous replacements for pieces ordered from India that were still held by Customs on Opening Night. Sarah O'Halloran's sound design was clear and enjoyable, especially when paired with the scene-setting music; the music chosen for the finale number, featuring Amanda Herring's fun choreography, also enhanced the overall experience. Cultural Competency Consultant Adam Ashraf Elsayigh also deserves recognition for helping the production so carefully portray the distinct cultures and religions present in Jerusalem in the 12th Century.

Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre
Drew Kopas as the Templarand Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Salah ad-Dinin Theater J's production of Nathan the Wise, playing through April 10. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Then there's the phenomenal cast itself. As the titular Nathan, Eric Hissom comes off as the wise, loving father who would indeed command the friendship and respect his character garners; it's a delight to watch him interact with each of the other characters, and we understand each relationship perfectly from the outset. Sorab Wadia's Al-Hafi serves as both narrator and a bit of a Shakespearean fool - his perfect comedic timing almost belies his equally strong insights, and Wadia plays to both ends skillfully. Jo Twiss' meddling Daya is also excellently presented, and I found myself suspicious of the character well before her true motives were revealed, which is a testament to Twiss' subtilties in her performance. As Nathan's daughter, Rachel, Em Whitworth brought a powerful combination of a sweet innocence and deep familial love, creating a empathetic character who drew the audience's sympathies to those she cares about as well. Drew Kopas portrays the sole remaining Templar Knight as a volatile, lost man, bringing a layer of compassion to the character even when he's lashing out; that sincerity makes the final comedic moments of the show all the more entertaining as well. Sarah Corey's Sittah almost stands in contrast to Withworth's Rachel; she's powerful, strategic, and has a strong sense of self, but Corey also allows compassion to mingle with the canniness, and the result is a fascinating woman. As Sultan Salah ad-Din, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh mostly comes off as a compassionate leader, one who carefully listens to those around him (especially advisors he respects, like Sittah and Nathan) and who genuinely weighs each decision and how it will impact the wellbeing of his people. But Ebrahimzadeh also shows flashes of impatience and harshness, just enough to remind the audience that the Sultan didn't hold on to Jerusalem through the Crusades through goodwill alone, but through smart, strategic, and sometimes harsh decisions as well. Rounding out the cast are James J Johnson's delightful Friar, who often laments to the audience about his disenchantment with his position thanks to the distasteful tasks he's been set and who seems to hold the sincerest beliefs of the Christians portrayed in the show, and John Lescault's flamboyant Patriarch, whose schemes come to an end in a fun dramatic flourish. While each member of the cast is individually strong, it's also their wonderful stage chemistry that elevates their performances. The cast's comedic timing, exchanged glances, and asides to the audience all elevate this to a truly great production.

Review: NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J / Folger Theatre
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Salah ad-Din and Eric Hissom as Nathan in Theater J's production of Nathan the Wise, playing through April 10. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Some of that praise can also extend to the script itself. The allusions to and influences of Shakespeare's works are readily present, and the play follows a similar structure. But the script also makes some thoughtful, insightful commentaries about life, religion, and politics that are forever relevant - whether it's 1192, 1779, or 2022. Those universal messages of love, friendship, and mutual respect shine through, and make this a compelling story, especially right now.

While it would have been possible for Nathan the Wise to ride to success solely on its pedigree alone (indeed, as of Opening Night, the show was well on its way to a sold-out run), it also handily lives up to the reputation of the two powerhouse theaters behind it. With a beautiful message, a solid cast and creative team, and a spirited atmosphere, Nathan the Wise is one of those productions you want to cheer during the curtain call, then immediately go back and watch it again.

Nathan the Wise runs at the Edalvich DCJCC through April 10th. Tickets are available on the Theater J website, and information about pre- and post-show talkbacks can be found there as well as on the Folger Theatre website. Run time is approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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