Nathan the Wise

Deep Dish Theater
Through Nov. 19

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.