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
- Menachem Wecher . Jewish Press
- Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
- Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer
- Trey Graham . City Paper