Deep Dish Theater's Nathan the Wise | Theater | Indy Week
Pin It

Deep Dish Theater's Nathan the Wise 

Sultan Saladin (Joseph Henderson) and Nathan (Jason Peck) in "Nathan the Wise"

Photo by Jonathan Bradford Young

Sultan Saladin (Joseph Henderson) and Nathan (Jason Peck) in "Nathan the Wise"

Plain English has its disadvantages, and the adaptation of Gottholt Lessing's Nathan the Wise at Deep Dish Theater proves to be a fascinating story that loses something in translation. Lessing's original play, first published in 1779, was highly controversial and was initially banned by the church. In it, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim (insert inevitable "walk into a bar" joke here) come together, putting the conflicts of their religious beliefs aside in favor of recognizing the others' character.

This is, frankly, the sort of theme that resonates today, and why the play has experienced a strong revival in the past decade, with one translation receiving international productions. However, this is not the adaptation used here; instead, the version by Edward Kemp (the artistic director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London) simplifies the dialogue, making the action easier to follow. But it also feels flat, like when a Shakespeare play is adapted with modern dialogue.

Lessing's tale, set in Jerusalem near the end of the 12th century, takes the classic theatrical tropes of misunderstandings, star-crossed romance and discovered identities and sets them against the backdrop of the Crusades and the melting pot of religions in the city. Nathan (Jason Peck) is a wealthy Jewish merchant who returns home to find his adopted daughter Rachel (Alice Turner) was saved from a fire by a Templar (Lucas Campbell) recently pardoned by the Sultan Saladin (Joseph Henderson). A series of romantic and religious revelations follow, highlighted by a parable Nathan tells the sultan that illustrates how no one religion can be said to be truly "right."

The most fascinating moments of Nathan the Wise have to do with that religious debate; Christians come off as the worst and most intolerant in the drama, though the monk Bonafiedes (a nicely grave Michael Joseph Murray) is portrayed as even-headed in contrast to the Jew-burning Patriarch Heraclius (Paul Paliyenko). Under Tony Lea's direction, the actors do fine work with the script they have, but there's rarely energy to the dialogue, expect perhaps the screwball comedy of Nathan's banter with the dervish Al-Haffi (an affable Rajeev Rajendran).

The willingness to depict conflicting aspects of ideologies and to argue for putting religious dogma aside to look at the greater good is daring in light of some of today's ossified political and religious debates. Unfortunately, the creaking plot of Nathan the Wise is far less groundbreaking, and the adaptation does it few favors. The first definitive English translation (which is online via Project Gutenberg) was done in the 19th century by William Taylor, and it reveals dialogue with more vivid imagery and cadence. The famous line that Taylor renders as, "What makes me to you a Christian makes you to me a Jew," for example, is reworded to "What makes me a Christian to you makes you a Jew to me." It might seem minor, but read both versions out loud; the first has a lyrical quality that the second one lacks. Deep Dish's production of Nathan the Wise won't leave you wondering what all the fuss about Lessing's play was about, but it won't have you feeling like you've experienced an unearthed classic either.

Related Locations


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Theater

Twitter Activity


Four of our friends accompanied us to this production. We have seen other Wendy Ward productions and loved them all …

by Gann Watson on Embark on a Timely Voyage Into Immigration Issues in I Wish You a Boat (Theater)

Thanks for the correction, Dustin. The playbill listed the wrong actor in the role.

by Byron Woods, INDY Theater and Dance Critic on Evaluating Bare Theatre's Experiment in Free Public Shakespeare on the Eve of Its Final Show (Theater)

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation