NEW JERUSALEM by David Ives (Harold Green Jewish Theatre). At the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge). Runs to April 13, Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 7 pm, matinees Wednesday 1 pm and Sunday 2 pm. $30-$60. 1-855-985-2787, hgjewishtheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNN
Innovation clashes with tradition in David Ives's New Jerusalem, an intriguingly heady and dramatic mix of history and philosophy.
Set in 1656 Amsterdam, the play focuses on young Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza's confrontation by his elders -- religious and secular -- over his thoughts on God, religion and humanity. It's a period work, but director Mitchell Cushman gives the characters a contemporary look and feel.
Dutch officials had given the Jewish Portuguese Jewish communities a sanctuary from inquisitions and enforced conversions, but at a price: Jews were not allowed to discuss religion with their Christian neighbours, limited in the public events they could hold and faced other restrictions.
Valkenburgh (Michael Hanrahan), a Christian city regent, requests that Mortera (Alon Nashman), the city's chief rabbi, and a congregation bigwig, Ben Israel (David Eisner) interrogate Spinoza (Aris Athanasopoulos), Mortera's prize pupil, about his potentially heretical views. If found guilty, he faces excommunication from both the religious and civil communities, a horrible fate.
Much of the action takes place in the Talmud Torah Temple, where the audience becomes the congregation hearing the sides in the case and bearing witness to its outcome. Cushman, who frequently works outside of conventional theatre spaces (Mr. Marmalade, Passion Play), stages the first two scenes in the lobby, with viewers as citizens in an Amsterdam market, sampling dried fruit and listening not only to the dialogue but also an itinerant preacher's message of doom.
The script is often fascinating, a battle of wits in which Spinoza tries hard not to step into the traps laid out for him by the manipulative Valkenburgh in the first act and the more caring, emotionally involved Mortera, relying on Jewish catechism, in the second. The young scholar admits that he's not yet polished his thoughts, but his ideas about the nature of the divine and scriptural truth already rattle conventional Christian and Jewish thought.
Though some of the second act's arguments aren't easy to follow and some figures are only sketched in, Ives cleverly balances the dramatic and the theoretical. We viewers as well as the characters have to be convinced by the various disputes.
Athanasopoulos captures Spinoza's charm and playfulness, his love of thought and his platonic devotion to Clara (Amy Keating), a Christian drawn to Spinoza; still, the actor's philosophical arguments could be more passionate. Hanrahan's Valkenburgh has his own charisma, though he reveals (intentional) moments of insensitivity as well as flashes of anti-Semitism.
Spinoza's world includes his painter friend Simon (James Graham) and his half-sister, Rebekah (Sascha Cole), who comes on like a malevolent fury, castigating her brother for perceived offenses. Cole's performance is strong, as is that of Keating, whose Clara bears the tragic brunt of having her mind opened by Spinoza.
It's Nashman, though, who does the most riveting work as Mortera, at first doubtful that his star student would dare defy centuries of teaching and then a vengeful angel determined to extirpate heresy. His final speech, a fearsome blend of anger and pain when he realizes the personal and community implications of Spinoza's thinking, will leave you shaking.