Amsterdam in the 17th century accepted Jews provided they not share nor show their faith. Into this uneasy "us vs. them" scenario, it's discovered that a Jew is not only talking religion but also spreading atheism. City leaders demand the Jewish leaders excommunicate him, but the Jews choose first to bring him before the congregation before deciding what to do.
Playwright David Ives makes us that congregation and in so doing creates: New Jerusalem, the Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. Real person, real place, difficult thing.
In the vein of Copenhagen, Stage West produces another powerful play of ideas. Directed by Jerry Russell, New Jerusalem lays out clearly the thrill of Spinoza's thoughts and the threat they posed to both sides, Christian and Jew.
The setting is a former warehouse turned temple in Amsterdam. Set designer Jim Covault creates a perfectly balanced space dominated by a large table and flanked by stately columns. Michael O'Brien's lights follow the same pattern, rich in color but restrained in movement. Even the period specific clothes by Michael Robinson avoid attention. Nothing in the design of the show wants to take sides in the battle of ideas.
Abraham Van Valkenburgh, played powerfully by Russell Dean Schultz, is a Christian bent on preserving the peace. He approaches Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Michael Corolla) and Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (Jim Covault) claiming that Spinoza has violated the city's rules that allow the Jews to reside there. If they can't silence one of their own, they may all have to pay the price.
Before Spinoza became an important 17th century philosopher he was Rabbi Mortera's star student. It is their relationship that clothes the evening's theoretical and theological sparring with human concern. Garret Storms plays the famous philosopher with impish innocence. His easy nonchalance stands in stark contrast to Jim Covault's Rabbi Mortera. Covault's steady momentum conveys not only the burden of his position but also his fatherly love for his wayward pupil. He seems to care enough for the both of them. And he's not alone.
The people around Spinoza seem to care more about what happens to him than he does. Barrett Nash turns in a heart wrenching performance as Spinoza's Christian and consequently forbidden girlfriend, Clara van den Enden. His friend, Simon de Vries (Samuel West Swanson), betrays him with total remorse. Even Spinoza's shrill half-sister (Angela Owen) comes around in the end begging for mercy. But Spinoza inexplicably marches on. It shouldn't be surprising. We've seen this before.
Ever since the fat-footed Oedipus just wouldn't drop it, theater has had a tradition of tragic figures driven by tragic flaws. Fear and frustration build as they work their way closer and closer to their own undoing. In the end, the audience walks away saying, "I am definitely not going to do that." Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
It's a tricky thing to watch a tragic hero. As revolting as their flaw may be, the passion it generates can be attractive. Maybe, just a little ambition or just a little pride would give us the get up and go to accomplish those New Year's resolutions. As tempting as it may be to want to pry apart the trait from its trouble, it's the job of the tragedy to prove the indivisible nature of the flaw.
In Stage West's New Jerusalem, there is too much wiggle room. Playwright Ives' comic pulse proves too much temptation for Garret Storms. In the midst of mighty stakes, Storms' Spinoza cracks the wit with anachronistic flare. It's a bit too much touché to be touching. His radical ideas are compelling but Rabbi Mortera's struggle is more real. Instead of a dramatic tragedy about a famous philosopher, we get a tragic drama about his mentor.
The danger is that Spinoza's passion is split from its consequence. His ideas are left attractively displayed waiting to ensnare. If you go to New Jerusalem, and you should, be prepared to have your assumptions about God, man and nature challenged.
Philosophy was never the same after Spinoza. You won't be either.