Review: "Nathan The Wise" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

‘Nathan The Wise’ may not be to all tastes as it certainly addresses head on, through laughter, humour and drama, religious tolerance and intolerance that seem to have shaken the human foundation and condition throughout centuries. The play is a wordy one as well with some monologues that just begin to open dialogue and discussion. With that being said, there’s so much going on in this play, and I suggest future audiences give a read of the background notes in the programme before the performance begins.  There’s no way to absorb it all, but at least it introduces the many layers upon layers of context and personal introspection regarding our understanding of religious tolerance and intolerance.

I was able to sit in the front row at the last minute as a mother and daughter wanted to sit together. No problem there. And by sitting in the front row I became far more involved and attentive in what I was seeing.

And I saw some marvelous work now onstage at the Studio Theatre as I reflect further on what I had witnessed.

It is twelfth century Jerusalem where we meet the wealthy Jew, Nathan (Diane Flacks) whose daughter, Rachel (Oksana Sirju) loves the Christian Knight templar (Jakob Ehman) after he saves Rachel from a fire at Nathan’s home while away on a business trip to Babylon.  Nathan faces a most disconcerting, troublesome and possibly dangerous question from Saladin (Danny Ghantous), the Muslim sultan: ‘Which is the one true faith to understand God? Christianity, Judaism or Islam?’  In a wonderful, persuasive and theatrical moment, Nathan responds wisely to the question but there are so many surprises in the plot which open us in our quest to seek a common humanity that unites us all through whatever faith we choose to practice.

Director Birgit Schreyer Duarte met this full-frontal challenge of religious discussion head on with great assurance and pride. Her Director’s Note states how the play examines different degrees of tolerance, but ‘the real challenge, and the real chance for change, lies in our potential to actually engage with the other positions, to listen to them, and think about them, and consider their perspective, to search for common ground between them and our own.”

A very mature analysis. As the character Nathan points out early in the first act, “Dreams are easy. Deeds are hard.” To find a dream cast who can perform Ms. Schreyer Duarte’s vision would be a challenging task.

But this cast is up for this challenge especially in who would assume the role of the central character.

Diane Flacks is superb as Nathan. I had no problem whatsoever in this bit of gender bending as Ms. Flacks becomes Nathan right down to the posture, to the walk, and to the mannerisms of a wise man who endures many possible traumas of his life (I don’t want to give away any spoiler alerts here). Oksana Sirju offers a lovely and believable performance as Rachel who has fallen in love with a Christian. Jakob Ehman is a dashing Knight Templar who truly loves Rachel.

I was most impressed with Danny Ghantous’s performance as the Muslim Sultan, Saladin. Mr. Ghantous’s height and stature offers us a regal looking leader. When Mr. Ghantous asks the question of which the one true faith is, his staring and careful watching of Ms. Flacks’ every move and movement is pure magic. At times there is an impression the Sultan would kill Nathan on the spot, while at other times the Sultan appears to be listening as a student in a class. This moment between these two solid actors is fascinating to watch.

Shelly Antony is the mysterious dervish Al-Hafi who appears that he might be trying to trick Nathan. Sarah Orenstein offers a confident and poised performance as Daya. Miranda Calderon as Saladin’s sister, Sittah, is every bit as regal looking as Mr. Ghantous. Ron Kennell thankfully provides much humour and laughter as Bonafides, a lay brother who appears to want to please everyone.

Final Commentary: ‘Nathan the Wise’ is a play that requires at least two or more viewings for its rich subtext of the exploration of three faiths. If anything, for a twenty first century audience, the play allows us hopefully to open that discussion of trying to find a common humanity and element that exists between all of us.

‘Nathan the Wise’ runs to October 11 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. For tickets www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

Running Time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 20-minute interval.

Photo of Diane Flacks as Nathan and Shelly Antony as Al-Hafi by David Hou.

The Cast: Shelly Antony, Miranda Calderon, Jakob Ehman, Deb Filler, Diane Flacks, Danny Ghantous, Ron Kennell, Hannah Miller, Harry Nelken, Sarah Orenstein, Oksana Sirju, Aladeen Tawfeek.

Producer: David Auster; Director: Birgit Schreyer Duarte; Set Designer: Teresa Przybylski; Costume Designer: Michelle Tracey; Lighting Designer: Steve Lucas; Sound Designer: Debashis Sinha.