Nathan the Wise
The cast of Nathan the Wise in Theater J’s production, playing through April 10; Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photograph

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Arches rise over staircases and passages, painted with broad brushstrokes of yellow and orange that impressionistically evoke Jerusalem stone, are shrouded in shadows of night. Smoke clouds drift in from the wings; swirling, flickering light hits the walls; on a curtain, a silhouette of a heroic figure rescues a young woman from a fire. This gorgeous spectacle, created by set designer Paige Hathaway and lighting designer Colin K. Bills, sets the stage for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise in a new adaptation by Michael Bloom.

The year is 1192, the time of the Third Crusade, and Jerusalem is under the rule of Kurdish Sultan Salah ad-Din (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Though it is wartime, the sultan has guaranteed religious freedom to the city’s Christian residents, and allowed the Jews, who had previously been ethnically cleansed by the Crusaders, to return.

Nathan (Eric Hissom), a Jewish merchant returning home from his trek along the Silk Road, learns his adoptive daughter Rachel (Em Whitworth) has been rescued from a fire by a Templar Knight (Drew Kopas). His friend, the Sufi mendicant Al-Hafi (Sorab Wadia), has been made the Sultan’s new treasurer, and reports that because of Salah ad-Din’s generosity towards the poor, more money is needed for the city’s defense. Meanwhile, the knight suffers from guilt and confusion over the massacres he and his band committed and why the Sultan spared his life while executing the other Templars.

Though 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, German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a giant of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. Nathan the Wise premiered 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 the in-house critic at Hamburg’s first national theater, Lessing was an early popularizer of William Shakespeare for the German stage and, in part, Nathan the Wise is in conversation with The Merchant of Venice. As Shakespeare has Antonio go to Shylock for a loan, so does Salah ad-Din summon Nathan. But whereas Shakespeare presents a bond that inflames ancient hatred; Lessing offers a different vision.

This friendship is not easily arrived upon: Salah ad-Din, testing Nathan’s reputation as a wise man, asks him which religion is the correct one. In medieval Europe, such disputations were a danger for Jews—too strong a defense of Judaism could result in the state-sanctioned pogroms; too weak a defense forced conversions. Nathan voices the Enlightened view that the religion one is raised in is the correct one for them, emphasizing what the three Abrahamic faiths hold in common. When that argument fails to convince the sultan he offers instead a parable: A father who loves his three sons equally and so makes exact replicas of the ring that, for generations, had been passed from father to favorite son. Upon the father’s death each son becomes jealous and goes before the wisest judge they can find, yet the judge cannot determine which ring is the genuine and urges the sons to compete only in who may be the most 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. By contrast when Shylock offers a story of Jacob and Laban, Antonio’s response is “the Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” 

But threats still abound. The Patriarch (John Lescault) plots to assassinate the sultan and, upon hearing rumors that Rachel was baptized as a child, calls for Nathan to be burnt at the stake, and Rachel placed in a convent. Nathan the Wise may end joyously with Jerusalem’s Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in peace, but Lessing was aware then, as we are now, of the precariousness.

As befitting a play with a silk merchant as protagonist, costume designer Ivania Stack does some extraordinary work, anachronistically combining the casual clothes one might normally see in the streets of today’s Jerusalem and the luxuriously sequined and bejeweled textiles of the trade routes. The most exquisite costumes are worn by the Sultan and his sister, Sittah (Sarah Corey), but even the beggar Al-Hafi’s vest is patched together from the cast-offs of the more richly adorned.

Unlike earlier translations that attempt to approximate Lessing’s text with blank-verse, Bloom has largely adopted the current theatrical vernacular of snarky observations and occasional awareness of theatrical conventions. Where Bloom has chosen to rely on more descriptive language it is to describe the atrocities that led them to this point: the horrors that broke the Templar’s psyche and the massacre in which Nathan’s previous family were murdered. (Nathan evokes Job on the ash heap to describe his grief.) Comedy, tragedy, and terror all exist in the same life.

Making the trauma of past sectarian violence, and the threat of future violence coexist on stage with a comedy of mistaken identities, multiple subplots, and reversals of fortune is not easy, even when retelling a classic story, but director Adam Immerwahr and his 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 through April 10. $50-$84 in-person; $60 streaming.