Posted by: strugglesome | November 7, 2011

Chariots Of Fire: The Lantern Theater’s New Jerusalem The Trial of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656

Of the many exquisite truths passed down to us from the great sages of Monty Python, the best and most profound may well be the simple phrase, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”. Because no matter how cynical we Jews get or how wary we are, the truth is that despite history, despite experience, and despite strong evidence to the contrary, the pedestrians of the Red Sea never seem to see which way the wind is blowing. But then, what Jew, living as they were, well, happy and wealthy, the upper classes of Medieval Spain, living happily among their Moorish rulers and enjoying delicious kosher paella, would have expected to be roughly and unceremoniously booted from their home, forced to convert to Christianity or flee, forfeiting their property to the newly fundamentalist state? It’s not exactly par for the course. Unless, of course, you are Jewish. Then it’s an unhappy truth we try to ignore as much as possible.

So who can blame the Sephardic population of Holland in the 17th century for being both optimistic and wary? After all, they had fled sunny Portugal for a land of wooden shoes, dykes and heavy dumplings, leaving behind everything they knew to take a tentative asylum in a country that accepted them for their wealth and assurance that they would keep their heads down and not cause any trouble. Which can be difficult in a world where simply being Jewish is perceived as causing trouble. But the Sephardic community was in fact making it work, they had accepted their new life in a Christian country (fun fact for any gentiles out there, Sephardic actually means a Jew living in a Muslim nation, and Ashkenazi means a Jew living in a Christian nation), they had built a lovely synagogue (which is actually situated not far from the Red Light district, so if you visit today you can get your dose of negotiable affection and catch up on your Talmudic studies, all within walking distance!) and they were, for the most part, making new lives for themselves, under the benevolent eye of HaShem. That is, up until a hip Jewish radical simply had to stir the pot. The last time that happened some people hailed him as the Messiah. This time. Baruch de Spinoza wasn’t quite as lucky (or he was quite a bit luckier, depending on your view of things). Instead, Baruch (blessed, or blessing in English) found himself ostracized from his people, accused of denying his faith, and vilified among the Dutch community. He would end his life at the tender age of 44, dying from tuberculosis (possible) exacerbated by his career as a lens grinder. He would later be hailed as one of the most revolutionary and influential philosophers of the last 500 years, a true modernist, and a “prince among philosophers”. Not bad for a nice Jewish boy.

But the famous philosopher, the global influencer, the historic figure, is not the subject of David Ives play,New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 (try saying that five times fast), now playing at the Lantern Theater Company. No, it is the young Spinoza, the dreamer, the romantic, the eager student of Talmud and Torah just on the peak of his major philosophical theorems that would later be the subject of his highly controversal Ethics, challenging Descartes (and quite a bit more) who is the Spinoza we see in this absorbing if imperfect play. As Spinoza himself (Sam Henderson) reminds us, “all good stories start with a Jew”. And so we have Baruch, Bento, to his friends, a 23-year-old, a callow youth, who, in his very existence, is a major threat to the entire Jewish community of Holland. Or at least, that’s what staunch and starchy Abraham van Valkenburgh (Seth Reichgott), an official in the city of Amsterdam, would have us believe. So concerned is he by Spinoza’s radical new theories about determinism and the nature of God, that he strong arms the chef rabbi, Saul Levi Mortera (David Bardeen) and the head of the Parnassim,  Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (a meek and mild David Blatt) into conducting a trial to ensure that Spinoza is still walking the party line of good obedient Jews who live quietly, grateful for the Dutch hospitality. And if he isn’t? Well, cherem (excommunication is the closest translation but even that doesn’t really cover it) for him, then. Of course, “under cherem you lose your entire world, both this one and the next”, but that’s a small price to pay to keep the peace, right? And so, after an exhausting philosophical debate that pits the student against his beloved teacher, his cartoonishly shrewish sister Rachel (Kittson O’Neill whose nice work can’t counteract a badly written role) and his entire community, Spinoza is shown the door.

Because the trial took place in the Portuguese synagogue, set designer Nick Embree has clearly referenced the real space in his set design, mimicking the arc and alluding to its magnificent chandeliers with a few spare but effective fixtures. Together with Shon Causer’s lighting design the space takes on the patina of the era and hints at the world before electricity.  Maggie Baker’s well executed costumes hit just the right mix of historic shape and modern material and motion, letting O’Neill sweep and Henderson pace with equal ease. Nick Rye’s sound is minimal but appropriate, and the design of the production as a whole is coherent and does the job of letting the play live both within the past and as a modern debate, bringing it closer to the audience then a mere History play, helping it feel as relevent as it is.

This is not a particularly easy story to tell. For one thing, it has the capacity to quickly devolve into pedantic ramblings or esoteric philosophical jargon and references (Kant you just imagine?). For another thing, Spinoza’s theories are some of the most difficult and dense arguments to be vocalized in the last 500 years (seriously, compared to Spinoza, Nietzche is a breeze), so they pose a real challenge to life-long academics, let alone theater goers who only get two and a half hours to try to get their minds around “substance“. So if we feel live Ives’ play does Spinoza a disservice in failing to fully unpack his ideas or portray a true Rabbinical teaching session or even get a couple of central tenants of Judaism right (it’s hard not to laugh at a rabbi who talks about heaven and hell when Jews believe in neither) at least we can say that he does make dramatic and deeply compelling a story that could have been mind numbingly boring. Ives’ sharply comedic writing helps, of course, with wickedly smart lines like “After the elegant absurdity of being born a Jew, why would I accept the near absurdity of Christianity?”.

Of course, part of the credit how engaging this particular production is must go to Henderson’s fiery eyed and forceful portrayal of Baruch himself which maintains it’s integrity and strength and is so well crafted that we root for Spinoza, even as he digs his own grave, verbally speaking. It survives director Charles McMahon’s rather lackluster staging (the piece is set in a thrust but played almost primarily for only one of the three audience banks) and the fact that both female characters, O’Neill’s aforementioned Rachel Spinoza and Mary Tuomanen’s wide-eyed and sweetly tortured Clara van den Enden, are badly written and one-dimensional, and the fact that the character of Simon de Vries is a device at best, though nicely played by Jake Blouch. But the central relationship of the play, between Henderson’s Spinoza and Bardeen’s Rabbi Mortera, is enough to sustain it through its errors. And the triangle of tension between Reichgott’s appropriately infuriating van Valkenburgh and the two Jews is a continual reminder of the very real stakes involved in this very theoretically conversation. Because if the Jewish population of Holland wasn’t living under the benign sufferance of their Dutch overlords, if they weren’t constantly in the position of outsiders, citizens of other nations, a subversive threat to the Christian state in their very existence, then this would just have been a spirited conversation between two scholars. But the fear of unrest, of another genocide, another flight in the night, forces the hand of Mortera to stab his beloved student in the back. As Spinoza says, “The Jews can’t speak because we have agreed to be silent”.

Whatever you think of Spinoza, his theories, religious freedom, Judaism or the Dutch, this is a deeply fascinating examination of humanity, philosophy, and the fundamental beliefs that can unite and divide us across time and space. Plus, it’s got some great Jewish jokes, just in time for Chanukah. So it’s really a bargain. Did you expect anything less? The Lantern Theater Company’s production of New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is now playing through the 12th of November. Pick up tickets here.


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