Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
Also see Arthur's review of 33 Variations
New Jerusalem begins with a couple of scenes that lay out the historical context. Spinoza's family, along with many other Sephardic Jews, had fled Portugal to escape the inquisition for the relative acceptance offered by the Dutch. As their head rabbi states, Saul Levi Mortera said, Amsterdam was their "new Jerusalem." Spinoza had been the bright star of pupils under the tutelage of Rabbi Mortera, and widely expected to ascend to that same position. However, his raging intellect, disdain for hypocrisy, and inability to contain the expression of his thoughts took him in a very different direction. The Dutch theocrats, unwilling to allow variations from Jewish orthodoxy among these refugees (especially those that challenge not only Jewish, but also Christian beliefs), press Jewish leaders to bring Spinoza up on charges of heresy.
Spinoza, as depicted, is a youthful, free-thinking truth-seeker, a pursuit that led him to reject belief in the god of his ancestors and divine authorship of the bible. His belief lies in reason. From here, Spinoza is summoned to the synagogue by Rabbi Mortera, and called upon to recant his heretic statements or face expulsion. The remainder of the plays is the imagined defense Spinoza offers to the assembled congregation, Rabbis, and Dutch officials, a defense that takes the form of elaborately spinning his decidedly radical, for his time, views of god, nature, and free will. The play is staged in such a way that the audience is the congregation, and Spinoza's testimony is addressed directly to us.
While Spinoza's arguments are highly stimulating and thought provoking, this means that most of the play is talk. This is not as dull as it might sound. His presentation is highly animated. He exudes great pleasure in exercising reason to pursue truths, and that pleasure creates a radiance that is hard to resist. At the same time, because Spinoza is depicted as less mature and grounded than one would expect of a 23-year-old who had assumed responsibility for his deceased father's business, his inability to broker a compromise with his community elders can become irritating rather than ennobling.
There are digressions from the focal point of Spinoza's beliefs. Spinoza's half-sister Rebekah arrives at the trial, shrilly lambasting him for cheating her out of her share of their parents' inheritance, but in the end for no discernible reason, becomes an advocate for him. Spinoza's chaste relationship with a young gentile women, Clara Van den Eden, and his betrayal at the hand of his friend Simon de Vries seem of little import to the thrust of the play. They do underscore Spinoza's dedication to the pursuit of truth even at the cost of human relationships.
Director Kurt Schweikhardt manages to keep this talk-heavy play engrossing, drawing the audience to lean in and hear the pearls generated by his protagonist. Newcomer Michael Torsch creates a portrait of Baruch de Spinoza that is dynamic, exuding self-confidence and in the thrall of ideas. He has attachments to friends, to teachers, and to his Jewish heritagein spite of his disbelief, he states "I love being a Jew, being Jewish is how I know life." Still, ideas and truth come first. The passion he exudes when thinking aloud, discovering a new path that takes his world view a step further, reaches directly to his audience's heart.
George Muellner has the most complex role in New Jerusalem, as Rabbi Mortera, torn between affection and respect for his former student, and the need to cede to the dictums of both Jewish orthodoxy and their Dutch hosts. Muellner offers a moving portrayal of a man deeply divided who in the end must serve the community's best interests, while admitting to his prodigy that in the end he will be greater than any of them.
James Ramlet also creates a strong character as the Dutch official who presses the Rabbi to confront Spinoza. His braying and bullying creates a representation of the power structure that makes the trial's outcome inevitable. Alex Brightwell as Simon, Briana Patnode as Clara, Rachel Weber as Rebekah, and Skyler Nowinski as an official of the synagogue all do sturdy work.
The simple set creates a sense of being within the confines of a synagogue. The costumes do well to put the characters in their 17th century frame, though the wig Torsch wears in deference to the thick, long locks seen in likenesses of Spinoza is a bit too much.
Spinoza's writings after his expulsion from the Jewish community are generally viewed as a crucible of the Enlightenment. It is possible that without the force of the cherem, or expulsionin fact the most extreme example of such an expulsion on recordhe would not have had the freedom to produce these works and to associate with other free thinkers of the era. In that light, the interrogation at Talmud Torah may be a major touchstone in the history of western philosophy. Certainly, whether one agrees or not with Spinoza's view on existence, his work is an important reference point for much that has transpired over the past three centuries. For that reason, and for the solid performances given by Michael Torsch and George Muellner, New Jerusalem is well worth viewing. Go prepared to listen and to think.
New Jerusalem continues through November 9, 2014, at the Hillcrest Center Theatre, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $19 - $28.00, student rush: $12.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Written by David Ives; Director: Kurt Schweikhardt; Scenic Designer: Theresa Akers; Costume Designer: Annie Cody; Lighting Designer: Paul Epton; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Stage manager: Kelli Tucker
Cast: Alex Brightwell (Simon De Vries), George Muellner (Saul Levi Mortera), Skyler Nowinski (Gasper Rodrigues Ben Israel), Briana Patnode (Clara Van Den Eden), James Ramlet (Abraham Van Valkenburgh), Michael Torsch (Baruch De Spinoza), Rachel Weber (Rebekah De Spinoza).