By David Ives
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore

In this witty theological drama, philosopher and accused apostate Baruch de Spinoza faces excommunication from the Jewish community. “Mr. Ives’s humor has always mixed the cerebral with the silly... his daring leap into metaphysics is… an engrossing primer on Spinoza’s radical thinking.” – The New York Times


DC Theatre Scene
New Jerusalem

It is a rare instance when a performance can take centuries old philosophy and make it seem fresh, exciting, and relevant, but Theater J has pulled it off with their scintillating production of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza. The confluence of David Ives’ smart, provocative script, Jeremy Skidmore’s powerful direction, and the polished performances of his talented cast has resulted in a fascinating, soul-searching look into mankind’s struggle to define God and our relationship to the divine.

It is the time of the Inquisition. The Jews have largely been driven from Spain and Portugal into neighboring countries still tolerant of their way of life. The story unfolds in Amsterdam, where an uneasy peace has been forged between the resident Christians and their newly repatriated Jewish neighbors. Both the local authorities and the Jewish elders are concerned, however, by the radical theological philosophy of a young lens grinder and intellectual named Baruch Spinoza. To preserve the fragile truce, local magistrate Valkenburgh and Spinoza’s teacher Chief Rabbi Mortera call him before them to decide his fate. In front of a synagogue packed with members of his Jewish community, Spinoza defends himself and his philosophy, facing down the threat of excommunication and exile.

Within this tense atmosphere, Spinoza and the small cast of characters do battle for the soul of Amsterdam. The struggle between Spinoza’s new rational approach to God and the deeply held convictions of the other characters, both Jewish and Christian, is a spellbinding clash of ideals. The beauty of the script and the direction comes in the way that during the course of the interrogation, each character has the harsh spotlight turned back on them whenever they speak. As each character takes their turn questioning and condemning Spinoza, they are forced to prove their moral authority, inevitably revealing deep inconsistencies and questions that shake the foundations of their belief. CONTINUE READING

Washington Post

Review: 'New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza' at Theater J

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

How refreshing: a play of ideas in which you actually learn something. Unlike so many gassier entries in this category, Theater J's edifying "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza" features a gallery of intriguing characters, nonstop enlightened argument and even -- hold the phone -- a socko finish.

As a bonus, the production, smartly handled by director Jeremy Skidmore, offers several extremely effective performances and two of the powerhouse variety: from Michael Tolaydo, as a Jewish spiritual leader confounded by his iconoclastic protégé, and Alexander Strain, as the upstart thinker and visionary 17th-century rationalist Baruch de Spinoza.

Certainly, if your tolerance is limited for discussions of such trivial matters as The Meaning of Everything, dramatist David Ives's battle of intellectual wills may not be the summer tonic you're seeking. Consider, though, that this is no dry exercise in pedagogy; it's a vigorous act of theatrical investigation. Ives, author of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's exuberantly smart-alecky adaptation of "The Liar," is a playwright who sees cerebral gamesmanship as an essential element of drama.

As a result, the clash of philosophies in "New Jerusalem" comes across as a volatile struggle between the kind of conscience-driven men who spend sleepless nights contemplating the future of humankind. This being a play and not a sermon, there is an emotional overlay, too, in the question of whether one is betraying one's community by challenging its most ingrained tenets. CONTINUE READING 

Washington Examiner

Theater J's 'New Jerusalem' paints portrait of philosopher
By: Barbara Mackay
Special to The Examiner
July 2, 2010
David Ives is that rare being, a man of letters. Playwright, novelist and translator, he produces works ranging from French farce to an investigation of the life and times of a famous Jewish philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza.

Currently in production at Theater J, "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656" is set where it says it is set. Amsterdam became home to many members of the Portuguese Jewish community who left Portugal because of the Inquisition.

In Ives' play they must deal with the fact that a young Spinoza's unorthodox ideas have scandalized the respectable burghers of the city. Facing Spinoza is the possibility that he may be excommunicated from the Jewish community.

Spinoza (Alexander Strain), who is questioning nothing less than established theories of God, man, creation, virtue, truth and the soul, is upsetting not only the Christians who provide safe haven for the Jews but also the Jews themselves, particularly his former teacher, Rabbi Mortera (Michael Tolaydo). CONTINUE READING

Washington City Paper

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
By David Ives; Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
At Theater J to July 25

The troubles that underlie David Ives’ New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza are as old as history: The biographical drama is set in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam, which was also home to a 20-something tyro philosopher who’d go on to challenge Descartes and inspire Hegel—and to his community of exiled Portuguese Jews, living uneasily in the “free” Dutch provinces after fleeing the Inquisition and finding few other safe harbors open to them. The security of that community is called into question when Spinoza’s ideas about the nature of the divine and the necessity of religion get circulated among a nervous Dutch population already spooked by English adventurism and outbreaks of the plague. Rather than dealing with the heretical philosopher directly, the Calvinist leadership of the great merchant city makes it clear that the Talmud Torah congregation had better bring its errant sheep back to the fold, and fast.

The show, which had a well reviewed off-Broadway production a couple of years back, is getting its first non–New York presentation at Theater J, and it’s still a solid entertainment—a courtroom drama, more or less, driven by dire prosecutorial thunderings and elegant philosophical ripostes. (Also wisecracks: Ives, whose effervescent adaptation of The Liar was featured earlier this season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is no newbie when it comes to keeping an audience both engaged and amused.)  CONTINUE READING

Rich Massabny

THEATER J - - “New Jerusalem:The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza”
If you want to see some powerful acting—catch the play at Theater J in the District, called, “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza.” It’s about the philosopher Baruch De Spinoza, living in Amsterdam in 1656 with a large Portuguese Jewish community. In this fictionalized account of the heretic Spinoza (Alexandar Strain), he questions God, Judaism---and everything. He’s portrayed as a good man, and a former student of Rabbi Mortera (Michael Tolaydo) with whom he is in total conflict and subsequently threatened with excommunication. Another religious defender, Valkenburgh (Lawrence Redmond), also challenges Spinoza. A breathtaking show! Four other actors add to this presentation directed by Jeremy Skidmore and written by David Ives. “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoa” runs at Theater J through July 25. Call 202-777=3210 for information. For tickets call 800-494-8497 or visit the website at
www.theaterj.orgCONTINUE READING

Washington Post

Backstage: 'New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza' at Theater J

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Director Jeremy Skidmore and actor Alexander Strain like working together on difficult material -- "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" for Forum Theatre, "My Name Is Asher Lev" for Round House and now "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza" at Theater J through July 25.

Jeez, you guys. How about "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," or something else light of heart for a change?

Nah. Too easy.

Both director and actor like scripts they can chew on, metaphorically. David Ives's play is based on (with fictionalized dialogue) the excommunication in 1656 of the young philosopher and sometime rabbinical student Spinoza by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for heretical views about God that he refused to recant.

Skidmore says he chose to do the play because of the beauty he sees in Ives's writing, and to do it in modern dress because of its "really, really contemporary" language and ideas. "The philosophical debate that is had in the play is one that I wanted to make as immediate as possible," the director says. "We felt that if we put the costumes in total period, it would allow the audience to distance themselves."

Spinoza, says Skidmore, "bases his philosophy of God very much in science and math. . . . Einstein was once asked if he believed in God, and he was quoted as saying, 'I believe in Spinoza's God.' " Skidmore says Spinoza posited that "God is matter -- that He is the thing that makes up everything in the universe." This did not go over well with the Talmud Torah Congregation elders in 1656, nor with the Christian powers in Amsterdam who allowed the Jews to live there unmolested, though under restrictions. CONTINUE READING