Friday, April 3, 2009

UWM's Nathan The Wise

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I’m going to see a play from the late 18th century, so I’m a bit surprised to see the stage. The atmosphere in UWM’s studio theatre feels very distinctly 1980’s. The floor is painted in a black and white checkerboard. Clothes bearing bright, primary colors lie strewn about the stage. Audience members come close to trampling over them on the way to their seats . . . the seats in the UWM Studio Theatre are set in the thrust stage arrangement I remember so vividly from when I was an undergraduate there.

With seats more or less full fro opening night, the lights lower—then rise. The music that’s playing extends the whole ‘80’s pop music feel . . . like we’re caught somewhere in an early music video of some sort . . . and then the action finally settles-in. Actors take the stage, claiming bits of costuming they’ll be wearing throughout the rest of the production. As everyone settles into character, the ‘80’s pop feel of the production settles into the background and we’re seeing some promising talent weave clever, ancient tale of religious acceptance highlighting some of the basic problems with arguments arising between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Dircted by UWM student Laura K. Sedlak, this production of Nathan The Wise has a quiet simplicity to it that refreshingly stages a very good story in a breathtakingly coherent fashion.

Andrew Edwin Voss has a gentle precision in the role of the title character—a wealthy Jewish man who is also considered to be quite intelligent. There’s real depth to Voss’ performance . . . he possesses a humble perspicacity about things . . . casually spouting profound aphorisms without a second thought. His movements are never ostentatious or exaggerated . . .     

Nathan is asked to meet with the Muslim Sultan Josh Sandvick. He and his sister Sittah (Tess Cinpinski) come across as young people to whom wealth has gently reached-out to. There are some rather clever lines between the two of them, but one of the most dynamic scenes in the entire production is a largely speechless exchange between the two of them over a life-sized chess game. We watch an endgame play out with actual actors moving across the black and white checkerboard of the stage. Fun.

David Rothrock has a magnetically comic humility onstage as both a friar and a dervish (in two different costumes.) Rothrock has a really advanced sense of understated hues of humor that add a great deal to the production.

The central conflict here involves a knight (Zachary William Spenser) who has saved Nathan’s adopted daughter Rachel (Meghan Reed) from certain death. Nathan is eager to thank the knight, but the usual sorts of religious hang-ups get in the way of doing so. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s story follows the delicate interconnectedness of  religion in a well-thought-out script that is well-executed here. Sedlak’s brightest accomplishment here, beyond the solid, competent execution of the script is a moment at the end of the play involving a disposable camera as characters are casually drawn together into an 18th century Kodak moment that somehow manages to feel alarmingly natural.

Nathan The Wise continues through April 4th at the UWM Studio Theatre. 

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