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On Stage Now: Two Plays Ask Us to Look Beyond Our Prejudices

On Stage Now: Two Plays Ask Us to Look Beyond Our Prejudices

Photo of Nathan the Wise being performed on stage

Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Festival, has dedicated the season to the theme “breaking boundaries.” The selections include two paired morality plays with crossover repertory casts – Birds of a Kind and Nathan the Wise – that challenge us to transcend our inherited religious and ethnic prejudices.

Directed by Cimolino and written by Lebanese-born Wajdi Mouawad, Birds of a Kind (original French title Tous Des Oiseaux) is making its English debut at the Ontario-based repertory theater company, the largest in North America. Mouawad, an award-winning playwright and filmmaker who was 8 years old when he and his family fled their village during Lebanon’s civil war, is known in Canadian and French theater for probing the human toll of war.

Birds of a Kind is set in Israel against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Eitan Zimmerman, a German-Jewish college student, is joined by his Arab-American girlfriend, Wahida, on a journey of self-discovery to the Middle East. When Eitan is severely injured in a terrorist attack at the Israeli-Jordanian border, a shocking family secret is revealed at his bedside.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (original German title: Nathan der Weise), set in twelfth-century Jerusalem during the Crusades, likewise delivers a surprise twist.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Lessing was born in Germany in 1729 – but he did not live to see the 1783 debut of Nathan the Wise at the Döbbelinsches Theater in Berlin because the Lutheran church banned the play for its unorthodox religious views. Lessing dared to question Christianity’s claim to absolute truth, insisting that a Jew could possess nobility of character.

Influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, Lessing modeled his Jewish protagonist on his friend, the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn known as “the Jewish Socrates.” Mendelssohn, a pious Jew (and the grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn), was famously challenged by a Christian adversary to defend his faith. In Lessing’s play, the Sultan Saladin tests Nathan by asking him to declare what he believes to be the true religion – Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Nathan responds wisely with a parable that satisfies the powerful Muslim ruler.

Nathan the Wise has remained a significant literary work, but as a performance piece, it has been rarely staged, except at times of rising religious intolerance and racial hatred. It was performed before a Jewish audience in 1933, after the Nazis rose to power, and was the first play performed in Germany at the end of World War II. In 2016, during the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, an adaption by Edward Kemp was staged in New York by the Classic Stage Company with F. Murray Abraham in the role of Nathan. Stratford’s current production, directed by German-born Birgit Schreyer Duarte, follow’s the Kemp script, as well.

True to its theme of breaking boundaries, Nathan is played by a woman – Diane Flacks, a Canadian comedic actress, screenwriter, and playwright. Describing herself as a “leftie Jew,” Flacks is no stranger to the themes of religious identity and estrangement. In a 2017 article about her play, Unholy, Flacks concludes that it is “worth trying to engage with the things that separate us in order to possibly discover a holy moment that could unite us.” Gotthold Lessing and Wajdi Mouawad could not have said it better.

Dr. David Goldbloom, a former festival board chairman, professor of psychiatry, and member of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, ON, applauds artistic director Antoni Cimolino for his pairing of Birds of a Kind and Nathan the Wise “as an act of social responsibility, and not simply as entertainment. The stage provides a powerful pulpit to explore dark themes about humanity in relative safety because of the suspension of disbelief. But there may be all kinds of truths embedded in the narratives -- truths that upset, provoke, move, and engage people.”

Birds of a Kind runs at the Stratford Festival through October 13 and Nathan the Wise runs through October 19. Also playing during the festival: The Front Page, Little Shop of Horrors, Mother’s Daughter, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Crucible, Othello, Private Lives, Henry VIII, Billy Elliot the Musical, and The Neverending Story. For more information, visit the festival’s website.  

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 9/04/2019

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture
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