School of theater and dance brings religious tolerance to stage in “Nathan the Wise”

Megan Confer

Although “Nathan the Wise” was originally written in Germany in 1779, the themes of religious tolerance and prejudice represented in the semi-musical are still applicable today.

Set in the intimate scene of the Wright-Curtis Theatre and produced by the School of Theater and Dance, the play tells the story of a wealthy Jewish merchant during the Christian Crusades in Muslim Jerusalem. The plot follows characters who try to close the gaps between Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Relating to the plot of the production, society is still figuring out religious tolerance and how to bridge the gap of prejudices.

Guest director Ami Dayan said “Nathan the Wise” was written during the enlightenment era, when human beings were celebrated as individuals rather than for their faith.

Dayan said the play takes the fable of the three rings and uses it in order to eliminate prejudice and promote religious tolerance. The fable features a magical ring, which through a series of events challenges people to live a moral and faithful life.

“This particular play took an ancient fable of the three rings and planted it brilliantly inside this drama and associated it with the bridging of the prejudice and the gaps of the three faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” Dayan said. “The fable itself is what makes this a classic.”

Dayan said the original play was very plot-heavy, but they adapted it to make it engaging to a broader audience.

“The attempt here was to keep the beauty and the articulation of the dispelling of these beliefs and inspire ideals of the enlightenment era, but relieving ourselves from the thickness of the plot and going back to the quality of the fable, the three ring fable,” Dayan said.

The first words in the production are spoken in Arabic and reflect the religious unrest in the Middle East, Dayan said.

“There are words in Hebrew and there are a lot of words in Arabic including, ‘Fight brave Muslims, this is the land of Islam,’” Dayan said. “Particularity here in America, this would generate dread.”

Dayan said because it’s a classic and it has the fairy tale touch, humor and a sense of lightness, he hopes the messages will easily come across to the audience.

“I hope this play will contribute to a capacity of our culture of acceptance, tolerance and inspiration,” Dayan said. “ I want people to be inspired by people who are not like us. Ultimately it’s a piece of entertainment. If we manage to open up hearts and minds, we’ve done our job exceedingly.”

Marc Moritz, a theater studies graduate student, plays Nathan.

“He is the spokesperson for sanity of peace,” Moritz said. “He is very family-oriented and believes religion should not be a reason for violence or disagreements. He is the voice of reason in the play.”

Moritz said the performance is very audience-involved, with the actors not bound to the stage alone.

“I think mostly when people go the theater there’s the stage and the audience,” Moritz said. “Here, those barriers are broken down a little. The actors are really interacting with the audience.”

It’s definitely a culture that is not portrayed on stage much, Moritz said.

“I think the storytelling aspect makes it less confrontational and less aggressive and more entertaining,” he said. “I think the students will find it pretty accessible. The music in it is everything from rock and roll and there’s a bit of every kind of music in it. He [Dayan] calls it the Middle East meets ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’”

Connor Simpson, a junior musical theater major, will play the friar. Simpson said the theme of religious tolerance is still timely.

“It was one of the first plays to really promote religious tolerance between Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Simpson said. “Even today were still working on how to solve those problems and how to reach that peace and religious tolerance. I absolutely think that it speaks just as well, if not more so, today as it did back then.”

Simpson said although the play tackles a serious theme, the direction also aims to entertain the audience.

“This is not a heavy show,” Simpson said. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s a semi-musical. It doesn’t ever try to preach to the audience, it just tells a story. I really think that the audience will connect with that.”

Tim Welsh, a junior theater studies major, plays the character Saladin.

“There are few plays like this since 9/11 and it’s really rewarding to be able to portray the beautiful and rich Islamic culture, as truthfully as we can to an audience who will hopefully be receptive,” Welsh said.

Welsh said the performance is not traditional in the sense that it goes beyond the stage by performing choreography and fights in the aisles and talking directly to the audience.

“This is not your mother’s musical theater; this is really a slice of something new,” Welsh said.

“Nathan the Wise” will run April 13-21 at 8 p.m., and April 15 and 22 at 2 p.m. in the Wright-Curtis Theatre in the Music and Speech Center. Tickets are available at the box office or by phone at 330-672-2497 and costs $8 for students, $14 for faculty, staff and alumni, $12 for seniors and $16 for adults.

Contact Megan Confer at [email protected].