THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA
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
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.
Ives’ careful plotting eventually leads Spinoza to devise the final capstone of his philosophy from a most unexpected place. This narrative gambit almost proves a bit too clever, in a deus-ex- machina sense, but it is nonetheless a satisfying conclusion to his winding exposition on God and the universe. It is fitting, in a dramatic sense if not a historical one, that Spinoza’s moment of greatest triumph should emerge from his time of greatest tribulation.
Ives’s envisioning of Spinoza presents a heady challenge. Young Baruch is wholeheartedly convinced of his logic, and he bristles at faulty thinking and close-mindedness. However, he is entirely incapable of scorn or disdain. Wise beyond his years, he is able to transcend the fear and betrayal of those around him to see their true value. Alexandar Strain handles the role with poise, humor, and boundless energy. The enthusiasm and likeability he employs while expounding on theology, physics, and the like are vital in getting the audience onboard with the relatively dense philosophical content of the play. It is a testament to his talent that I entered the play with little interest in this important thinker and left excited and emboldened to seek out his works.
Spinoza’s complicated relationship with his teacher and father figure Rabbi Mortera provides the most poignant, heartrending moments of the show. Baruch’s ultimate fate lies in Mortera’s hands, causing the Elder immense inner turmoil as he balances the wellbeing of his most beloved student against that of his community. Michael Tolaydo manages Mortera’s roiling emotional landscape with an expert’s touch. His talent and years of theatrical experience allow him to transition imperceptibly between touching fatherly speeches, stern professorial cross-examinations, and fiery condemnations of Baruch’s scandalous realignment of the Universe. Tolaydo puts on a master class in the frightening, tearful climax, wherein he demands to know Baruch’s true name over and over again, displaying superb emotional range and control.
The other actors perform admirably as well. In particular, Lawrence Redmond and Ethan Bowen, as Valkenburgh and Ben Israel, give impressive turns as men of authority clinging desperately to their long-held values as drowning men might cling to a floating plank of wood. Redmond brings a needed humanity to his initially unlikable bureaucrat, while Bowen slowly infuses a surprising sense of menace into the seemingly good-natured Jewish elder.
For what is essentially a staging of a philosophy salon, the two-hour runtime flies almost as fast as the questions and accusations fly back and forth across the stage. New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza is a tightly plotted, polished production that shows that the conflicts and ideals of 17th century Europe are in fact very relevant to our contemporary society. The value of religious tolerance and keeping an open mind, in particular, should resonate in with an opinionated, dialed-in DC audience.
New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
By David Ives
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Ben Demers
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.
The piece is based on a historical event, the 1656 tribunal in Amsterdam -- a haven from the Spanish Inquisition for Portuguese Jews such as Spinoza -- convened to decide whether the 23-year-old Spinoza should be excommunicated from Judaism. Accused of espousing atheism at a time when Jews were required by Dutch law to abide by the strictures of their faith, Spinoza is perceived as a threat by both the Jewish elders and their Christian overseers, eager for an outwardly serene status quo to be maintained.
One of the fascinating facets of Ives's play is the degree to which the gears of the gentle Spinoza's probing intellect, and his effort to understand the nature of the universe in ways not explained in Scripture, seem to his adversaries to be instruments of chaos and terror. The play is in this sense a virtual public service announcement for unregulated expression, prima facie evidence that a search for truth can set you free.
As a match for Ives's contemporary-sounding language, Skidmore puts the actors in vaguely modern dress: Courtesy of costume designer Kathleen Geldard, the Christian regent Valkenburgh (an elegant Lawrence Redmond) wears a fastidious white suit and shoes; Tolaydo's Rabbi Mortera is in sober pinstripes. The effect is to remove some of the stylistic barriers that can turn this sort of play into talky period drama.
The characters gather in set designer Misha Kachman's eye-pleasing rendering of the sanctuary of a synagogue, where wooden benches on risers also contribute to the sense of a star chamber. The audience, too, plays its part: We're the congregation, called on to witness the deconstruction of Spinoza's radical views on God, religion, nature and eternity, all of which are explained with remarkable clarity.
Strain's galvanizing portrayal, by turns airy and impassioned, infuses Spinoza with likeability: He seems very much the generous, if slightly distracted, soul described by those who love him and especially by Clara (Lauren Culpepper), the gentile with whom he is in love but for whom he won't convert. Why, he asks at one point, would he give up the absurdity of one religion for the illogic of another?
The courtroom theatrics of "New Jerusalem" -- Valkenburgh seeks a finding by the synagogue of heretical acts by Spinoza so the young philosopher can be banished -- ultimately are most helpful in illuminating Spinoza's impact on the other attendees, particularly Mortera. Tolaydo's warm authority makes believable the rabbi's affection for Spinoza; Ives skillfully cloaks the character in ambiguous intent. Will he protect his brilliant student or turn his back on him, for the sake of his own neck and the community's security? The mournful conclusion suggests his decision comes at a high personal cost.
Although Culpepper gives an appealingly sympathetic account of Clara, three other actors have the tougher jobs of playing Spinoza's friends and relatives. The tasks facing Brandon McCoy, Ethan Bowen and Eliza Bell are harder, because the plot requires their characters to undergo rapid shifts in loyalty, and these result in the evening's isolated moments of clunkiness. Bell, as Spinoza's aggrieved half-sister Rebekah, must take the most unconvincing leap, from tormenter of Spinoza to his ardent defender, in the space of what feels like nanoseconds.
Still, all three add color to the exhilarating canvas of this play, one with the effrontery to put big thoughts out there and force you to think about them.
of Baruch de Spinoza
by David Ives. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Lighting, Thom Weaver; sound, Matt Nielson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 25 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS.
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).
A third point of view, the Christian one, is represented by Abraham van Valkenburgh (Lawrence Redmond), who plays the paternalistic, unfeeling representative of Amsterdam, a man determined to silence Spinoza.
Part of the appeal of "New Jerusalem" is that it offers a novel view of an extraordinary man -- not the Spinoza who is known today for his lifework, but a young man who loved nature, who liked to sketch, a dreamer who was passionately in love with a young Catholic woman.
One of the most engaging elements of the play is that, as conceived by Ives, this young man is not yet a philosopher but someone searching for answers. There is considerable humor in "New Jerusalem," much of it provided by Spinoza thinking out loud as he tries to put his ideas together. Strain is delightful as the intelligent, lively, eloquent Spinoza, a brilliant mind in a young and energetic body.
The main arguments of the play are given to Spinoza and Mortera, and it is a credit to Ives' writing that a play so dense with philosophical and religious discussion not once sounds talky or preachy. Ethan Bowen plays a synagogue elder, Ben Israel, a friend and supporter of Spinoza who gradually turns against him. Brandon McCoy is powerful in the role of Spinoza's best friend, Simon. Spinoza's girlfriend, Clara, is played with gentle grace by Lauren Culpepper.
The only role that is not integral to the production is that of Rebekah (Eliza Bell), Spinoza's sister. Continually interrupting the action with her quasi-humorous asides, she eventually becomes more a nuisance than an addition to the production.
Director Jeremy Skidmore skillfully integrates the audience into the production. In Misha Kachman's set, the seats of the theater face seven rows of seats on risers, a mirror image of the theater; a row of chairs is set onstage; four brass chandeliers extend from the stage into the audience.
The characters are not set in period dress, which distances the play from the 17th century. Although some of the characters wear clothes that are not circa 2010 -- Valkenburgh, for instance, wears a white suit and elaborate gold-embroidered vest -- Kathleen Geldard's costumes offer only vague references to time and place.
Although it deals with an important moment in history, "New Jerusalem" is not a history play. It succeeds because its various themes -- the examination of entrenched power versus intellectual and spiritual freedom, the examination of the growth of personal belief -- are so carefully woven together by Ives and given life by Theater J's accomplished cast.
Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/lifestyle/Theater-J_s-_New-Jerusalem_-paints-portrait-of-philosopher-97602104.html#ixzz0sYECrHcb
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.)
Check your encyclopaedia if you want more about how things end. What you’ll want to know about the Theater J production in the meantime is that director Jeremy Skidmore stages it quasi-environmentally, folding the audience into the action: You are, willingly or no, a member of the Talmud Torah congregation sitting in judgment on Spinoza. And depending on the energy and the personalities in the room, that may lead to an unexpected contribution or two from the stalls—and an ad-lib in response from the cast.
Which is, by and large, a strong lineup: Alexander Strain, who’s always had a way of projecting cool intelligence onstage, is the poised Spinoza. Too poised? I’m not sure: I wanted more of the moments in which an idea or an emotion sparked behind that collected mien. But then, there are several such moments, and they’re pretty wonderful.
Michael Tolaydo, effortlessly commanding, is the rabbi who’s dumbfounded and then devastated by the new paths his prize pupil is breaking, and who’ll have to make a choice between a kindred mind and the congregation that is his charge. Ethan Bowen stands in for the confused middle, sympathetic to a fellow Jew but scandalized when Spinoza defends his thinking by targeting the very foundations of Judaism. And Lawrence Redmond—boy, has he settled into a magisterial way with villains lately—plays the heavy, an authoritarian to whom Ives gives a surprising moment of passion. This is one bully whose aggression isn’t about what you might assume.
Talky? God, yes. The topic is, well, God—and the universe, and everything. (And no, alas, Spinoza’s answer is not 42.) But Ives is an agile dramatist, and he’s distilled the arguments admirably. Whereas Arena Stage’s recent excursion into the theoretics of Buckminster Fuller had its soporific moments, Theater J’s evening with this older philosopher never seems less than consciousness-raising.
One caveat: Ives has seen fit to punctuate the proceedings with spiteful outbursts from Spinoza’s half-sister, who speaks up from the crowd (and then won’t shut up). Eliza Bell is presumably doing her best, but her lines ring false, both emotionally and dramaturgically. The bulk of the proceedings, though: It’s Inherit the Wind, only snappier and with more jokes about hairsplitting Jews. Your mileage will vary, I imagine, depending on your appetite for erudite theosophical tennis-balling. But I have to tell you: I trudged in feeling a little beat from a long Monday, and I ended up staying for the talk-back.
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.org.
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.
"Without a doubt, the biggest challenge was finding a way to make philosophy active," Skidmore says. "It's a very wonderful play to read, and then the challenge is finding a way to make that dimensional and emotional and personal."
For Strain, who plays Spinoza, the challenges have been just as great. "This is by far the hardest play I've ever worked on, because it's all about ideas . . . what it meant for someone to say the kinds of things that he was saying, because most of us living in the United States have never experienced a state religion. . . . I think that's why the play is pertinent. It does sort of hold up a lens to [ask ourselves] how tolerant are we."
Strain says he was lucky enough to have been nearly a double major in college, studying both theater and philosophy, so he had read Spinoza. The play happens before the scholar had fully shaped his rationalist beliefs, left Amsterdam and become, famously, a lens grinder. So Strain focused on the personal.
"Spinoza is regarded as one of the foremost Enlightenment philosophers," explains the actor. "You anticipate that these kinds of people, these revolutionary thinkers, must be incredibly charismatic, defiant . . . and that wasn't how Spinoza acted at all. . . . He was, by all accounts, a very gentle soul . . . a very sort of humble and solitary figure, it seems."