Arches rise above the stairways and passageways, painted in broad strokes of yellow and orange that impressionistically evoke Jerusalem stone, are shrouded in nocturnal shadows. Clouds of smoke drift from the wings; swirling, flickering light hits the walls; on a curtain, the silhouette of a heroic character saves a young woman from a fire. This magnificent show, created by the scenographer paige hathaway and lighting designer Colin K. Billsprepare the ground for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise in a new adaptation of Michael Bloom.
The year is 1192, the time of the Third Crusade, and Jerusalem is under the rule of the Kurdish Sultan Salah al-Din (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Although it was a time of war, the sultan guaranteed religious freedom to Christian residents of the city and allowed the Jews, who had previously been ethnically cleansed by the Crusaders, to return.
Nat (Eric Hisson), a Jewish merchant returning from his trek along the Silk Road, learns that his adopted daughter Rachel (Em Whitworth) was saved from a fire by a Templar (Drew Kopas). His friend, the Sufi beggar Al Hafi (sorab wadia), was appointed as the Sultan’s new treasurer and reports that due to Salah ad-Din’s generosity to the poor, more money was needed for the defense of the city. Meanwhile, the knight suffers from guilt and confusion over the massacres he and his band committed and why the Sultan spared his life by executing the other Templars.
Although the 18th century is often referred to as the “Age of Enlightenment”, it was still a time when friendships between Christians and Jews were rare. Lessing nonetheless based the character of his 12th-century silk merchant on his close friend, the German-Jewish philosopher. Moses Mendelssohna giant of Haskalahor Jewish Enlightenment. Nathan the Wise created in 1783, two years after Lessing’s death. As a German play with a Jewish protagonist, it was banned during the Third Reich.
In his role as in-house critic at the first national theater in Hamburg, Lessing was one of the first popularizers of william shakespeare for the German scene and, in part, Nathan the Wise is in conversation with The merchant of Venice. Like Shakespeare did Anthony go to Shylock for a loan, Salah ad-Din summons Nathan. But while Shakespeare presents a connection that stirs up ancient hatreds; Lessing offers a different vision.
This friendship is not easy to establish: Salah ad-Din, testing Nathan’s reputation as a sage, asks him which religion is the right one. In medieval Europe, such disputes were a danger to Jews – too strong a defense of Judaism could lead to state-sanctioned pogroms; too weak a defense forced conversions. Nathan expresses the enlightened view that the religion one is raised in is the right one for them, highlighting what the three Abrahamic faiths have in common. When this argument fails to convince the Sultan, he instead offers a parable: A father who loves his three sons equally and thus makes exact replicas of the ring which for generations had been passed down from father to his favorite son. When the father dies, each son becomes jealous and goes before the wisest judge he can find, but the judge cannot determine which ring is the real one and urges the sons to compete only to find out who can be the more loving. The sultan is convinced of Nathan’s wisdom and the silk merchant is convinced of Salah ad-Din’s commitment to friendship and peace. In contrast, when Shylock offers a story of Jacob and Laban, Antonio’s response is “the devil can quote scripture for his purpose”.
But threats still abound. the Patriarch (Jean Lescault) plots to assassinate the Sultan and, after hearing rumors that Rachel was baptized as a child, demands that Nathan be burned at the stake and Rachel be placed in a convent. Nathan the Wise may end happily with the Jews, Muslims and Christians of Jerusalem living in peace, but Lessing was aware then, as we are now, of the precariousness.
As befits a play with a silk merchant as the protagonist, costume designer Ivania Pile does an extraordinary job, anachronistically combining the casual clothing one might normally see on the streets of today’s Jerusalem with the luxuriously sequined and bejeweled textiles of the trade routes. The most exquisite costumes are worn by the sultan and his sister, Sitta (Sarah Corey), but even the vest of the beggar Al-Hafi is patched from the most richly ornamented cast-offs.
Unlike earlier translations which attempt to approximate Lessing’s text with blank verse, Bloom has largely adopted the current theatrical vernacular of sarcastic observations and a casual awareness of theatrical conventions. Where Bloom chose to rely on more descriptive language was to describe the atrocities that got them to this point: the horrors that shattered the psyche of the Templars and the massacre in which the former family of Nathan was murdered. (Nathan mentions Use on the pile of ashes to describe his grief.) Comedy, tragedy and terror all exist in the same life.
Coexisting on stage the trauma of past sectarian violence and the threat of future violence with a comedy of mistaken identities, multiple subplots and reversals of fortune is not easy, even when telling a classic story, but the director Adam Immerwahr and its ensemble are up to the task.
Nathan the Wise, written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, adapted by Michael Bloom and directed by Adam Immerwahr, plays at Theater J until April 10. theatrej.org. $50 to $84 in person; $60 ongoing.