New Jerusalem deals with the true story of Bento "Baruch" Spinoza, the brilliant 17th-century Jewish/Dutch rationalist, who laid the foundations of the Enlightenment via his major ideas concerning nature, free will and reason.
The play is set in a relatively progressive Amsterdam 1656, where many Portuguese Jews had settled in order to avoid persecution back home. And in this safer, generally more accepting Country for Jews, we meet a very high energy, articulate and intellectually cocky, but likeable 23 year old Baruch Spinoza.
For the longest time, Spinoza had been his rabbi's most promising student, even touted as the one most likely to succeed this rabbi upon his retirement. But things changed.
Spinoza stopped attending synagogue services, quit badgering his teachers with endless probing, impertinent questions, such as: "Why do we unquestionably and perpetually accept the Scriptures? How could Moses have written about his own death? Why do we anthropomorphize God? What is God? If we believe in angels, we might as well believe in unicorns."
He was the kind of precocious kid who comes across as arrogant mainly because he's the smartest person in the room.
In fact, at 23, Spinoza's life was becoming the life of an intellect, and this play focuses on one very dramatic moment: on July 27, 1656, at the age of 23, he was permanently expelled for heresy from Jewish society, from his greatly cherished religious community.
The playwright, David Ives' script deals with the vital period of Spinoza's life immediately prior to and particularly during his "cherem" (censure or excommunication) and just as the provocative 23 year old had begun to seriously explore his philosophical approach to life and religion.
Our theatrical experience begins in the theatre foyer, which for the purposes of this production, brilliantly directed by Mitchell Cushman , becomes a Jewish market square in Amsterdam (Design by Nick Blais). Following some narrative foreplay, we're informed that we are the Jewish community of Amsterdam and we are led, as a congregation, into the theatre, which has now become the Talmud Torah Congregation. Henceforth, with no 4th wall betwixt us and the inquisitors, we sit as witnesses in judgment of the heretic, Baruch Spinoza.
As eager as Spinoza may have been at one level to pursue his line of questioning/reasoning, he was equally as determined not to be exiled from his beloved community. In fact, he loved Judaism as much as he loved to criticize it. Nevertheless, his intellect did ultimately reign supreme, since in the final analysis, under intense questioning by both the rabbi and the Christian Town Regent, Spinoza's commitment to logic and essential truths could not be contained. He concluded that the Torah was full of myths, was extremely dictatorial and that it had many contradictions.
He thus chose excommunication to silence, perpetual banishment to blindly accepting political correctness, social prejudices and/or theological conventions.
So, over 400 years ago, this young genius had inadvertently, but bravely, opened the way for biblical criticism that would inevitably leave its mark on Western civilization.
While the circumstances surrounding this particular incident in Spinoza's life in the play are valid, some of the specific details and dialogue have been created by the playwright, since none of this true and very dramatic story was ever officially recorded. Nevertheless, the reason so much of what unfolds rings true, is because much of the dialogue in this script is drawn from one of Spinoza's works, Theological-Political Treatise and additionally because of the startling clarity of his method.
Costume-wise, the actors wear contemporary clothes-for example, Spinoza wears a knitted keepa & jean-like trousers... (Costume Design by Laura Gardner), in order to help us identify the types of key individuals involved and to remind us that the issues and the characters in this play are as much us, here, now, as they were that community in 1656 Amsterdam.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but Aris Athanasopoulos as Spinoza, Michael Hanrahan as the Town's Regent, Sascha Cole as Spinoza's half sister, David Eisner as one of the Congregation's Elders and Alon Nashman as the rabbi deserve special mention.
This play is an attempt by Ives to give us an insight into this truly brilliant man, his life and times and his philosophical thoughts, while at the same time giving us some idea of their importance, as well as their effect on modern society.
Absolutely, well worth seeing-"something for your heart and your mind."
The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
Written by: David Ives
Directed by: Mitchell Cushman
Set and Lighting Design by: Nick Blais
Costume Design by: Laura Gardner
Sound Design and Composition by: Christopher Stanton
March 15 - April 13, 2014
Toronto Centre of the Arts
For Tickets: 855-985-2787