March 19, 2004
Jewish, Arab, Israel ties
Despite a strong production, Nathans fails to incite.
LAURI DONAHUE SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN
One of the first questions posed in Jason Sherman's play The
League of Nathans is, "What's a good Jew?"
The question is explored via the relationship of three childhood
friends, all named Nathan, from the eve of Nathan Abramowitz's Toronto
bar mitzvah to the trio's reunion in a Spanish synagogue years later,
with stopovers in between.
The play aims to grapple with the conflicting and complex relationship
of Canadian Jews to Israel. According to Sherman, "I know my
work gets into political issues many don't want to confront, but
I've always thought theatre was to provoke discussion and incite
Regrettably, the strongest reactions this play's likely to provoke
are a shrug, a smile or perhaps some rolling of the eyes by those
on the right side of the political spectrum. This is not the fault
of a strong Touchstone Theatre production directed by Katrina Dunn.
All of the proper technical elements are in place, with creative
staging and costume (by Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh), lighting (Itai Erdal)
and sound (Noah Drew) that prevent the confusion that could easily
result from the frequent jumps in time and place. The four actors
(Andy Thompson, Josh Drebit and Nathan Schwartz as the Nathans,
plus Charles Siegel as Zaydie/Harvey) are all solid. Drebit is perhaps
the standout, displaying super-sharp comic timing in the roll of
Nathan Isaacs, a successful Winnipeg businessman having a premature
Nathans is often funny, never boring, and not excessively
pedantic (for political theatre). Perhaps it was considered daring
in 1992, when the play premièred, to even suggest that a
Canadian Jew might be critical of Israel. Today, that hardly seems
a radical proposition.
Anglo-American playwright Naomi Wallace has suggested that political
theatre "most often ... is used to mean theatre with a left-wing
axe to grind." In this case, the axe being ground but
never to a cutting edge is the sins of Israel and its uncritical
supporters. These sins are represented by Nathan Glass (Schwartz),
who is involved in the murder of an Arab boy at age 20 and, by 33,
is a humorless, Uzi-toting, Israeli settler.
In Sherman's world view, Jews in the Diaspora are confused and aimless
at best, weak and victimized at worst. Those in Israel, on the other
hand, seem to be either fascists (represented by Glass) or those
who seek to defend Judaism from the evils of Zionism (represented
by the silver hip flask of a saintly offstage former rabbi).
Director Dunn comments that she likes Nathans "because
it doesn't answer questions it just asks them." One
of the play's deeper insights is that to be a good Jew is to ask
questions, to challenge authority illustrated by contrasting
Abraham (who argues with God in order to save Sodom) with Noah (who
neglects to argue for humanity in the face of the flood). But Nathans
fails to wrestle with the deeper questions, to reflect upon
rather than merely reflect the characters' views: What makes
a Jew demonize Israel by equating Zionism with fascism? What makes
a Jew demonize Arabs by justifying the murder of an innocent boy?
Countering conservative orthodoxy with the liberal version is no
more of a genuine wrestling match than a WWE bout.
Touchstone Theatre's production of The League of Nathans
is at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, 1895 Venables St., through
March 20. Tickets are $16-20 and available from Ticketmaster at
604-280-3311 or www.ticketmaster.ca.
Lauri Donahue is an award-winning playwright and the rebbetzin
of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond.