‘New Jerusalem -The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza’ By Jennifer Perry at Theater J

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Every so often, I get the opportunity to witness a theatrical production that is not only thought-provoking, entertaining, and witty, but has a great deal of intellectual depth. Theater J’s remount of the Summer 2010 critical hit, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza is certainly one of those shows. The seven member ensemble cast – led by two DC theatrical stars Alexander Strain and Michael Tolaydo – excels under the direction of Jeremy Skidmore in presenting David Ives’ examination of faith in God and the ramifications of questioning accepted beliefs about the control God has over the world and the life of His followers.

Certainly, I entered into the theater with much anticipation. Having had many philosophical discussions over concepts like free will and belief vs. knowledge while attending an Evangelical Christian College where theological classes were a requirement, I was curious to see how these debates could be ‘theatricalized.’ The case of Baruch de Spinoza, a 17th century Jewish intellectual who is scrutinized for his seemingly anti-establishment views on God in Christian-dominated Amsterdam, provides an interesting way to dramatize the ramifications of an individual’s choice to question the accepted norms in established monotheistic religions and the tensions that can arise in societies where there is a power gap between two religious groups vying for political and social influence. Rather than doing so through a dry, history-based intellectual exercise, Ives rightfully chooses to present the case with modern lens. In doing so, it’s easy to see how the trials and tribulations of Baruch de Spinoza still have relevance today in some areas of the world and sub-sects of certain societies.

Though the fundamental tenets of Ives’ script are strong and thought-provoking, it’s unlikely that the play would be quite as impactful if the actors aren’t up to maintaining witty exchanges with one another while examining deep philosophical questions. Thankfully, every member of the cast is certainly up to the challenge of balancing intellectual discourse with the telling of a very human story. At the core of this piece is Alexander Strain (Baruch) who defies his young age in portraying an intellectually curious, witty and sometimes sarcastic young man with a great deal of nuance and range. His final scenes with Michael Tolaydo (Rabbi Mortera) are the most intense as he carefully balances the portrayal of real human emotion- in this case a love and appreciation for what the Rabbi has taught him – with the anger and frustration that can arise when one has more questions about the meaning of life than complete answers. Tolaydo more than capably portrays Mortera, a man rooted in Jewish faith and tradition. Tolaydo portrays Mortera’s struggle to decide whether to allow for Baruch to be excommunicated for spreading ideas that go against the Jewish faith and discussing matters of religion with Amsterdam’s Christians (which, was, at the time against the law) in a very raw way; it’s heart-breaking to watch.

Rounding out the cast are Colleen Delany (Baruch’s sometimes outspoken sister Rebekah), Emma Jaster (Clara, Baruch’s Christian lover), Michael Kramer (Ben Israel, a Jewish leader), Brandon McCoy (Simon, a young Christian man who befriends Baruch under some interesting pretenses), and Lawrence Redmond (Valkenburgh, a Christian official in Amsterdam concerned with Baruch’s actions).

Alexander Strain and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Delany is most successful when acting as nuisance to Strain’s Baruch. Her comedic timing, particularly as she addresses the congregation of the synagogue (where Baruch is essentially ‘on trial’ for his actions and views) is first rate. Jaster is charming as sweet Clara who has a great ‘child-like’ faith in God. She is especially strong during the interrogation scenes where she discusses her love for Baruch despite their disagreements on matters of faith and doctrine.  Kramer does a commendable job in embodying a man steeped in Jewish religion and practices while not quite having the intellectual wherewithal to examine the most difficult questions of the Jewish scriptures. His thirst for knowledge is endearing. McCoy has an interesting and organic take on Simon. The struggle his character faces in choosing friendship over familial obligation is relatable because of the way that McCoy presents it. Redmond is necessarily political as Valkenburgh and holds his own with the indomitable force that is Tolaydo’s Rabbi Mortera.

Though the acting is front and center in this play (as it should be given Ives’ strong dialogue), the production values are also first rate. Wooden pews encompass most of Misha Kachman’s set. It’s a very realistic setting for a 16th century synagogue while also doubling as an outdoor venue where Baruch and his friend Simon draw and discuss philosophy. Thom Weaver’s minimalist lighting design is very suitable for this non-flashy play. The chandeliers allow for the synagogue to be lit in a natural way. Kathleen Geldard’s modern-influenced costumes remind the audience that although the play takes place in the 17th century, some of these same philosophical and human debates remain relevant today.

I would highly recommend this play.  Even if one is not a person of faith – whether Jewish or Christian – the philosophical discussions at play are stimulating for the intellectually curious. The acting is among the best one can see on DC’s stages. And for those like myself who were very much raised in church, the jokes about Calvinism and Presbyterianism will likely be rather entertaining.

Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth should be applauded for remounting this production and continuing to push the envelope on presenting theatre suitable for a thinking audience.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.

Featured Picture: (l-r) Timothy H. Lynch, Bradley Foster Smith, Michael Innocenti, Rich Montgomery, Kevin Adams and David Jourdan. Photo by Jim Coates.

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza plays through April 1, 2012, at Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.