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Washington Post

‘New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza’ returns to Theater J

“New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza” strides back into Theater J after its acclaimed 2010 run as an established hit, and the show’s success is no mystery. The David Ives script is fierce, funny and up-to-the-minute in its moral investigations. And the cast knocks it out of the park.

The plot is about the 1656 excommunication of Spinoza — only in his early 20s, but already a daring philosopher — from the Jewish community. At stake: notions of God that rattle Jews and Christians alike, stoking resentment and fear and threatening the delicate political agreement under which Jews were “tolerated” in Amsterdam at the time.

The casual tone of Ives’s writing and Kathleen Geldard’s largely modern costuming — sport coats and turtlenecks, untucked Oxfords — aim to bring these debates into our own time. (Ideological infidelity: Is there any more potent Washington topic?) The judicial air of the hard wooden benches rising to the rafters on Misha Kachman’s set extends into the audience: We, the congregation, are implicated as director Jeremy Skidmore occasionally moves the actors up the aisles to look us in the eye.

Bright as the conception is, it’s the consistently intelligent acting that drives the entertaining play home. The original cast is back pretty much intact, led by Alexander Strain, whose youthful Spinoza beams with joy at his own insights. He’s charming even when his theories hit brick walls.

“I’m still working that out,” Spinoza admits when cross-examined to the limit, and there’s a lovely vulnerability to the way Strain plays uncertainty in the face of all that prosecutorial law and zealous dogma.

Largely, though, this Spinoza is confident and whip-smart, to invoke a phrase that easily applies to another recent hit by Ives, the mischievous comedy “Venus in Fur.” Ives being Ives — author of blisteringly funny short plays and the recent adaptation of Corneille’s “The Liar” at the Shakespeare Theatre — this courtroomlike drama is leavened by a fistful of good punch lines. The company stays on its toes, flowing with the brief riptides of comic relief without sacrificing the gravity of the situation.

Michael Tolaydo expertly blends high authority and personal concern as Spinoza’s mentor. A good deal of the show’s empathy and complexity radiates from Tolaydo’s exquisitely shaded work. (One terrific consequence of having a prodigy as the centerpiece: The interrogation feels like a disappointed family on the verge of breaking up.) Lawrence Redmond is deliciously imperious as the Christian regent in a resplendent white suit; Brandon McCoy is nicely naive as Spinoza’s pal; and Michael Kramer is amusing and frightening as a man profoundly confused by Spinoza’s revelations.

Like Kramer, the women are new to the cast, and they are excellent: Emma Jaster as the winsome Christian object of Spinoza’s chaste affections, and Colleen Delany, playing Spinoza’s shrewish sister with the fury of a Fury. The arguments sing, and they plainly resonate at Theater J, a rigorous troupe that has survived frictions over some of its Middle East-themed programming. The ability to think and speak freely: It’s a religion thing, a political thing, and a theater thing, as well. To this question, the company’s “New Jerusalem” speaks wisely, and well.

 


 

Washington City Paper

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza By David Ives Directed by Jeremy Skidmore; At Theater J to April 1 Heresy Loves Company

Utterly Divine: Spinoza's views on God land him in hot water.

It’s been a mere 20 months since Theater J staged the first non-New York production of New Jerusalem, David Ives’ brilliantly imagined account of the 1656 inquest that resulted in pioneering philosopher Baruch de Spinoza’s excommunication from a Jewish congregation in Amsterdam. Not familiar? I wasn’t, either. The events depicted are probably newsier to me—a Gentile who got a B in Philosophy 101 and inquired no further—than they will be to many who attend this taut, absorbing theological courtroom drama. But this is no dry helping of nourishing cultural vegetables. Anyone who caught the magnificent production of Ives’ Venus in Fur at Studio Theatre last summer (only the most recent of his area triumphs) will know the playwright is a first-class wit who brings a light touch to heavy questions.

New Jerusalem’s are the black-hole heaviest—nothing less than the nature of “Nature, which is to say God,” to cite one of the heretical notions that got Spinoza in Dutch with the, um, Dutch. In Ives’ telling, it was under pressure from the regents of the majority-Christian city that Spinoza was summoned to demonstrate before fellow congregants (played by we, the audience) that his unconventional beliefs—his rejection of a soul that outlives the body, for one—did not constitute atheism.

There’s no record of the hearing; only the order of excommunication, unprecedented in its harshness, survives. That gives Ives plenty of leeway for jokes, and there’s no dearth of them, thank God. (“There is no Jewish dogma, only bickering.”) Still, the real action is in the erudition and vigor of the debate itself, as performed by a sterling trio of actors reprising their roles from the 2010 production: a never-better Alexander Strain as Spinoza, Lawrence Redmond as the beady-eyed prosecutor Valkenburgh, and Michael Tolaydo as Rabbi Mortera, Spinoza’s beloved teacher—a man who’d believed Spinoza might succeed him to lead the congregation, instead saddled with the heart-rending chore of sentencing him to exile.

But why? The Portuguese Inquisition, having become rather more expected than its Spanish precursor, had driven the chosen people out on pain of forced conversion, torture, and/or murder. Amsterdam offered shelter, but the city’s welcome came with strings attached: Jews were forbidden to worship publicly or to discuss religion with Christians, among other restrictions. One of the more curious aspects of the agreements of 1619 was that Jewish practice within Amsterdam must remain orthodox.

The fit of that jacket would prove too tight for Spinoza. Strain’s performance is finely calibrated, showing us a man whose uncommon sincerity and curiosity far outweigh his occasional arrogance. Redmond, too, finds layers in Valkenburgh that make us understand he believes he’s doing the right and necessary thing. Only Spinoza’s shrewish half-sister Rebekkah (Colleen Delany) and milquetoast pal Simon (Brandon McCoy) seem like underfed characters; their ever-shifting positions vis-à-vis our protagonist are never quite convincing, and their interjections only highlight how smooth and refined everything else is. You wouldn’t expect the path to enlightenment to move at such a sprightly pace.

 


Washington Jewish Week
"New Jerusalem" returns to Theater J


by Andrew Sargus Klein
Special to WJW

n the middle of the of the trial to determine his excommunication, the young Baruch di Spinoza asks those present, "Would you say a play is still going on after the actors' final exit, or when the last candle onstage has been blown out?" Theater J's production of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza has a clear answer, as evidenced by the porous fourth wall, the tremendous and subtle lighting that casts the title character's shadow across the stage after he is excommunicated, and, not least, the "Spinozium" conference that will cap the show's run, complete with a mock trial.

"A soul is like a play or a trial," Spinoza said earlier. "A trial isn't the judge or the accused or what gets said in court. It's an event that occurs when all these elements mix together; it's what happens amongst all these things; or in-between them." And thus this play, in its sweeping historicity and religious reflection, is an event meant to be experienced far beyond the stage.

New Jerusalem, written by David Ives and directed by Jeremy Skidmore, isn't a straight-laced portrait of a heterodox philosopher as a young man. It is fun, pithy, self-serious and self-deprecating and earnest in its attempt at keeping all this threads together. With few exceptions, it is successful.

From the moment the audience is seated the fourth wall is broken. The unchanging set is the main synagogue in Amsterdam, and a lone chair is placed with its back to us: We are attending a trial. Entrances and exits occur around and through the audience, and the characters address us as if we were part of the production. When Spinoza's half sister interjects herself into the trial, she does so already seated amongst us-her spit, the result of her opening rage-infected monologue, falls on the backs of the heads of those seated in the front rows.

Alexander Strain is the young Spinoza, and his earnestness and vigor shines through the entire performance. He is self-effacing and modestly concrete in his convictions. He delivers his quips and light philosophical banter with equal aplomb. The breadth of the play is, on one level, disconcertingly light hearted, which Strain embodies quite well. Equal weight is given to Spinoza's full-hearted observations-"Is there anything more depressing than the prospect of an afterlife?"-as well as Rebecca's invectives that end with one-liners about brisket. Ives's text is a vehicle for philosophical and religious reflection; it isn't a "normal" piece of theater. The dialogue throughout the first act is blunt and direct. There is little to no nuance or slow-building of narrative.

Spinoza is on trial for ill-defined crimes against the city of Amsterdam and, vaguely, the European religious community. His ideas include a fusing of the body and mind; a disbelief in miracles, angels, and the soul; and the conviction that the Torah (and any other religious text) is simply a man-made book. God and nature are the same thing. One cannot exist outside the context of the other. In the 1600s this was considered heretical, and although the term "New Jerusalem" was given to Amsterdam because of its tolerance to Jews throughout the Spanish inquisition, the limits of that tolerance were hardly wide open.

Valkenburgh, played by Lawrence Redmond, represents the city of Amsterdam and is the leader of the charge to have Spinoza excommunicated and summarily banished. He embodies the role of a state and its desire to enforce social contracts that maintain stability. His humanity is shown in one single moment: he admits he could have had Spinoza rounded up and executed, but instead desires a trial so that the Jewish community could be seen to police its own. His nephew, Simon, who is both Spinoza's friend and his betrayer, ends up turning on Valkenburgh, and asks: "Isn't our toleration only a mask for a system of vicious injustice, and suppression, a kind of invisible torture?" Valkenburgh replies: "Then honor the mask! It's all we have!"

Although Valkenburgh is the impetus for the trial, the real back and forth is between Spinoza and Rabbi Mortera. The former, the one-time star pupil of the latter, their debate-and the Rabbi's subsequent cathartic monologue-is the heart of the play's exigency. The Rabbi is the leader of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. It is he who must maintain relations with the city government while providing traditional religious guidance. But Spinoza's insights have clearly struck a profoundly unsettling chord within him. The play's high water mark of emotion occurs toward the very end when the Rabbi, who has clearly seen and comprehended Spinoza's wisdom, nevertheless casts him out so as to preserve the community as he knows it-as the community knows itself.

This act stands in perfect counterpoint to the brilliant boiling over of Ben Israel. Played by Michael Kramer, he demonstrates near perfectly an important variation to Rabbi Mortera: that is, Ben cannot wrap his head around Spinoza's ideas. He cannot accept them. He begins the play as Spinoza's defender, and ends up tearing off the young man's yarmulke as the end result of disconcertingly real bout of rage and confusion. He can only honor the mask; he cannot perceive a world without it-the necessary hypocrisies we defend, the contracts we sign, facades erected so that we may remain comfortable.

The end of the second act does away with all the pithy one-liners that make up the rest of the play. Here, more than a normal play, is where everything is leading to: how does the state (Valkenburgh), the church (Rabbi Mortera) and the community (Ben Israel) reconcile Spinoza's heterodox understandings of God and religious practice? That question has yet to be fully answered. Audience members are given ballots and asked to vote on whether Spinoza's excommunication should be lifted.

"There are many other kinds of ways a community can silence a speaker, a thinker, an organization," Artistic Director Ari Roth said in a phone interview. "That is a very challenging subject with any group, and it resonates with American history and it resonates with the Jewish community today."

New Jerusalem went on a sold out run at Theater J in 2010. From the moment the closing-night curtain fell, Roth knew the play would be back. There is no doubt as to why. Every inch of its production-from its astoundingly subtle use of music and lighting to its resplendent stage design-breathes with inspiration.


Amsterdamned

David Ives's portrait of a city and citizen in crisis features sharply crafted language and a star turn by Alexander Strain

By Jonathan Padget
Published on March 8, 2012, 5:38am |

Who over 30 hasn't thought at some point that know-it-all twentysomethings -- lounging in their skinny jeans, tweeting about their favorite CW shows -- will surely be the downfall of civilization as we know it? It happens, you roll your eyes and sigh audibly, and life goes on.

But man, back in 17th century Amsterdam, the oldsters just couldn't let it drop. Let word get out that some 23-year-old wannabe-philosopher is questioning the nature of God and the universe, and bam, they're all over him like icing on a Georgetown Cupcake, pushing his faith community to excommunicate him before a more sinister fate befalls him.

It's been less than two years since Theater J dived into this milieu with New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza, but David Ives's portrait of a city and a citizen in crisis proved so popular that the company has brought it back for a month-long run. The appeal is obvious: sharply crafted language that brings lofty ideas down to earth, brisk pacing by director Jeremy Skidmore and a star turn by Alexander Strain that makes Spinoza far more likable than threatening.

Yet threatening he is to the Christian leaders of Amsterdam in 1656, a time when Portuguese Jews like Spinoza are enjoying a peaceful, though intensely regulated, haven from the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Civic spokesman Valkenburgh (Lawrence Redmond) boasts of Amsterdam's tolerance, claiming that the city is, in essence, the New Jerusalem of biblical prophecy. But at the same time, he is pressuring leaders of Spinoza's congregation, Rabbi Mortera (Michael Tolaydo) and elder Ben Israel (Michael Kramer), to eject Spinoza with the harshest form of excommunication possible.

As his day of reckoning unfolds at the congregation, Spinoza thinks that he has an ally in his friend Simon (Brandon McCoy), but Simon is soon revealed to have connections and motivations that belie their bond. A family member, half sister Rebekah (Colleen Delany), has shown up, but only to berate him over issues like his inheritance from their father. And while he does have the devotion of a young woman, Clara (Emma Jaster), he's been seeing, her Christianity makes their relationship problematic to a government that won't permit Jews and Christians to discuss religion, much less marry.

''Atheist'' is the condemning label that Valkenburgh wants applied to Spinoza, despite the fact that he eloquently defends himself as a believer in God, albeit one with radical ideas about where and what God is. And so the action propels toward the foregone conclusion of historical record -- that Spinoza was excommunicated and went on to be both revered for his philosophy and reviled by those whose faith can't withstand questioning.

The script by Ives, who has been a Washington staple of late with works such as The Heir Apparent at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Venus in Fur at Studio Theatre, is stronger in its lovely articulation of Spinoza's intellectual concepts than it is in dramatic construction. The character of Valkenburgh is rarely more than a mustache-twirl shy of a stereotypical Snidely Whiplash villain, though Redmond clearly has the gravitas to convey deeper levels, were they provided.

Simon, Rebekah and Clara are crafted in a similarly superficial vein that makes them less compelling than they could be, although Clara does have a memorable moment (in a too-understated performance by Jaster) when she conveys the overwhelming, life-altering impact of all the new ideas Spinoza has introduced her to.

Then again, it does go to show that it's really all about Spinoza's time to shine (and sweat) in the spotlight. Strain's performance movingly conveys the sometimes wavering confidence of a brilliant young man who knows that he doesn't have all the answers but is determined to find them eventually, regardless of the cost. And the cost is no more apparent than in the push and pull with Tolaydo's Rabbi Montera, who clearly cares for Spinoza and would perhaps even celebrate his brash intellect if not facing such pressure to crush it.

Alas, the Amsterdam of Spinoza's time fell short of the shining city of the play's title, but it's ultimately a worthy destination that bears revisiting.


DC Theatre Scene 

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza

Some shows leave audiences humming a tune on their way out of the theatre. The hum you feel as the lights fall on New Jerusalem is a deeper vibration: the mental buzz that lingers after a wave of big thinking. Mental gymnastics are performed with flair in this invigorating drama, re-mounted at Theater J this month after a hugely successful run in 2010 (you can read the DCTS review of the original production here). Playwright David Ives is orchestrating points of philosophy rather than notes of music, and this team attains his velocity with a crisp, elegant, and better-than-ever production. )

We turn back to the year 1656 for this one, but the air in Amsterdam is palpably electric from scene one. Baruch de Spinoza, an ardent young Jewish student of philosophy (Alexander Strain, showing seemingly effortless grace) is passionately vocal about his spiritual quandaries. So entrenched is he in shoring up his burgeoning system of beliefs — about the universe, the spirit, and nature of God — that he doesn’t realize, at first, how much his talking has everyone talking.

Summoned to the synagogue by a seriously irked Christian official (ferociously acted by Lawrence Redmond), Spinoza must confront his kin on some sticky bits of sacred text. The pressure is on our poor boy to topple his tower to God, or face excommunication from his people, his community, and the city.

Ives was the crackling engine behind several of this past season’s hit DC plays, notably The Heir Apparent at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Venus in Fur at The Studio Theatre. He wouldn’t dare call this a comedy — indeed, his aptitude for surmounting greater planes of tension, pathos, and surprise are all showcased here — but New Jerusalem wouldn’t be an Ives play without a huge buoying draught of dry wit. The humor really starts to strike once the irons are hot, and Spinoza’s trial becomes not just a philosophical scuffle but a deeply emotional last chance to hold onto the people he loves. His self-effacing jokes, his coy rebuttals, and his occasional splash of snark kicks what might have been fodder for a merely watchable period courtroom drama into a higher, more heart-pumping battle of the minds.

Director Jeremy Skidmore’s unflinching grasp of the play’s rhythm and tone, coupled with exceptional supporting performances, also help carry the show to success. Colleen Delany, taking over the role of Spinoza’s hot-headed sister Rebekah, is a startling and combustible ingredient, as is Michael Kramer’s erratic and impatient Ben Israel. No less impressive is Michael Tolaydo, who gives a tremendous and heartfelt performance as Mortera, the chief rabbi, a character who over time becomes less certain of changing his star pupil’s convictions and increasingly interested in simply keeping him safe by shutting him up. “What is human life but a deal, and a good deal?” he says, in the grave pleading tone of a father speaking to a son.

Misha Kachman’s handsome stained wood set design, which highlights a steep upstage bank of seats, mirrors the real audience and ups the judicial atmosphere, and Skidmore has actors frequently enter and exit through the house, as well as step out into the aisles to appeal to us directly. Not all shows are enhanced by such integration with the audience, but the civic feel it generates here adds immediacy to the judging of Spinoza’s conclusions — and the humanity of the young man who brought them forth.

“My head is not full of darkness,” Spinoza pleads toward show’s end. “It’s full of light.” Regardless of his fate in the final minutes, he’s right on that point for sure. Many thanks to Theater J for bringing the light back to a fun, gripping, and relevant show — and for another chance to light up our minds in return.

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