Review: “Nathan the Wise”

TheatreFirst stirs up Middle East drama in compelling Nathan the Wise
three 1/2 stars Wise and wonderful
(opened Feb. 9, 2007)

At the close of Friday’s opening-night performance of Nathan the Wise, TheatreFirst artistic director Clive Chafer thanked his audience for coming and, with some hesitation, mentioned that his 13-year-old company is facing some dire financial difficulties. Any help, he added, would be greatly appreciated.

Now, small theater companies are almost always facing dire financial difficulties, but this one sounds serious, and that is distressing, particularly in the wake of such an astute production of Nathan the Wise, a play that nobody but TheatreFirst would tackle.

With a mission to produce international drama and “throw light on the art and culture of diverse nations, while providing our patrons with high quality entertainment,” TheatreFirst, which performs in a vacant storefront space called the Old Oakland Theatre, fills a theatrical niche in the Bay Area. Rather than mindless entertainment, TheatreFirst is mindful, quite often provocative and almost always fascinating _ on a global scale.

Nathan the Wise is the perfect example of the company at its best. Here’s a 1729 play by German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that explores the relationships between Jews, Christians and Muslims in 12th-century Jerusalem.

The original German version ran upward of 4 1/2 hours, but Chafer here uses Edward Kemp’s 2003 adaptation, which runs a much more manageable 2 1/2 hours.

So much time has gone by since the play was written (let alone when it was set), and so little has changed. One of the characters marvels at the Middle East _ where everyone in the world is thrown together.

War, money and religious intolerance all take their positions in the plot, but what makes Nathan the Wise really interesting is, as the title suggests, its wisdom. Lessing’s objective here seems to be a desire to rise above the squabbling and the deep-seated differences and think about humanity in a more open-minded, all-encompassing way.

Over here we have Nathan (Will Huddleston), a wealthy Jewish man who trades exotic goods and loans money. Then we have Saladin (Terry Lamb), the sultan, a Muslim, who needs money to finance his wars. And then we have a Knight Templar (Christopher Maikish), a Christian soldier, who falls in love with Nathan’s daughter, Rachel (Megan Briggs).

To successfully navigate all the Shakespearean twists and turns of the plot _ the convoluted ending is even goofier than anything Shakespeare could have dreamed up _ Lessing must keep his preaching for religious tolerance prominent in each scene.

That’s what keeps the play from stumbling on the melodrama of its plot. For instance, Nathan and the Knight Templar have a fascinating discussion about religious differences that peaks when Nathan says: “It is enough to be a man.”

And then, in the central scene of the play, when the sultan has summoned Nathan in an attempt to trick the man out of his money, comes a fascinating parable.

Saladin asks Nathan: “Which faith have you found most enlightening?” Thinking that among Judaism, Muslim and Christianity there can be no right answer, Saladin has all but stuffed is hands into Nathan’s pockets. But this man is not called “the Wise” for nothing and responds with the story of a father, his three sons and three rings that is astonishing in its power and clarity.

Director Soren Oliver works with a strong cast _ which also includes Jessica Powell, Clive Worsley (right, with Huddleston) and Sandra Schlechter _ to present Lessing’s play in as brisk and as straightforward a manner as possible. This allows the play’s intellect to flourish.

Nathan the Wise is a fascinating play that has lost none of its power over the centuries. To be without TheatreFirst or this kind of first-rate, thought-provoking theater would be a tremendous loss to the Bay Area.

For information about TheatreFirst and Nathan the Wise, visit

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