German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 didactic drama Nathan der Weise is set in Jerusalem in 1192, at the end of the Third Crusade, which was successful overall for the European invaders but failed to reconquer Jerusalem. It preaches a powerful sermon on religious tolerance that British dramatist Edward Kemp’s 2003 translation and adaption of Lessing’s play, called Nathan the Wise, underscores, maybe a little too heavily at times.
Nathan the Wise, now playing in Deep Dish Theater Company’s small black-box theater at the Dillard’s end of University Mall in Chapel Hill, NC, is a provocative play that challenges Jews, Muslims, and Christians to set aside the prejudices that they absorbed with their mothers’ milk and work together for the common good. But that is easier said than done, in the 12th century as it is in the 22nd century.
Playwright Edward Kemp makes Nathan the Wise a teachable moment, but there is a little too much romantic melodrama into the proceedings — in the form of a pair of star-crossed lovers: a boy who is ostentatiously Christian and a girl who is ostensibly Jewish.
German Christian Knight Templar Curd von Stauffen (Lucas Campbell) is a handsome and charismatic Saracen captive, temporarily reprieved from the scaffold and waiting for Saladin (Joseph Henderson), the sultan of Jerusalem, to decide his ultimate fate when he heroically plunges into a burning building to save the life of a stranger named Rachel (Alice Turner), the adopted daughter of a wealthy and perspicacious Jewish merchant known throughout the Holy City as “Nathan the Wise” (Jason Peck).
For the young couple, thrown together by chance, it is love at first sight. But an interfaith marriage is out of the question. Indeed, even if he possessed the legendary wisdom of King Solomon, Nathan would have a hard time finding a Happy Ending for these young lovers … and yet ….
Jason Peck gives a warm and winning performance as Nathan; and Joseph Henderson provides a fitting foil as Saladin, the enlightened sultan of Jerusalem. Lucas Campbell plays the Knight Templar Curd von Stauffen as a stormy petrel, but Alice Turner as Rachel cannot summon the passion to make her instant attraction to Curd completely convincing.
Page Purgar is highly amusing as Rachel’s prickly Christian companion Daya; Michael Joseph Murray does good work as Brother Bonafides; and Paul Paliyenko is terrific as Heraclius, the fire-breathing patriarch of Jerusalem.
Rajeev Rajendran has a nice cameo as the dervish Al-Hafi; but Sherida McMullan makes the sultan’s sister and chief confidant as Sittah a little too hip-swiveling sexy at times when she should be shrewd, with a knowing smile like the proverbial Cheshire cat.
Scenic designer Miyuki Su does an impressive job of suggesting various Jerusalem locales with a minimum of scenery and props and set changes, and costume designer Jordan Jaked adds authenticity to the proceedings with his colorful facsimiles of 12th century fashions.
Director Tony Lea does his best to set a brisk pace for this talky, talky, talky play. But Nathan the Wise cannot be performed at a gallop.
SECOND OPINION: Nov. 2nd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Zack Smith (who awarded the show 3 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/deep-dish-theaters-nathan-the-wise/Content?oid=2695094; Nov. 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/11/02/1612226/nathan-serves-an-effective-lesson.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 28th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/10/nathan-the-wise-is-a-200-year-old-lesson-in-religious-tolerance-set-in-jerusalem/.)
Deep Dish Theater Company presents NATHAN THE WISE at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3, 8 p.m. Nov. 4 and 5, 2 p.m. Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 and 10, 8 p.m. Nov. 11 and 12, 2 p.m. Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 17, and 8 p.m. Nov. 18 and 19 in its performance space between The Print Shop and the Public Library at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Dr. and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514.
TICKETS: $21 ($14 students and $19 seniors), with a $2 discount for Wednesday and Thursday shows and $10 “Cheap Dish Night” on Nov. 2nd.
BOX OFFICE: 919/968-1515 or http://www.etix.com/.
NOTE 1: After the Sunday, Nov. 6th, show, there will be a discussion on “Contemporary Parallels in Our World and Community,” with a panel that includes Jerry Mikell of the Islamic Center of Raleigh, the Rev. Rollin Russell of the Christian Unity Conference, and Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of the Judea Reform Congregation.
NOTE 2: After the Thursday, Nov. 10th, show,, there will be a panel discussion on “Religious Pluralism on Campus,” with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students Josh Orol, Sakire Dogan, Olivia Hyatt, and Religious Studies Professor Carl Ernst.
NOTE 3: After the Sunday, Nov. 13th, show, Dr. Jonathan Hess, the Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Term Professor of Jewish History and Culture at UNC, will speak on the history of the play and its context.
NOTE 4: After the Thursday, Nov. 17th, show, there will be a “Meet the Designers” talk with the production team.
NOTE 5: The Deep Dish Book Selection, Bruce Feiler’s Where God Was Born (http://brucefeiler.com/books/where-god-was-born/), will be discussed at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 14th, at Flyleaf Books (http://www.flyleafbooks.com/) in Chapel Hill.
The Play: http://www.edwardkemp.co.uk/page8.htm (official web page) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_the_wise (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
The Playwright: http://www.edwardkemp.co.uk/ (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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