By Joe Straw
“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings.” – Albert Einstein
What is it that attracts me to theatre? What attracted me to this production? The press release pointed to a subject matter that caught my attention. Also mentioned were actors that I have seen in the last year or two and whose work I admire. Wonderful actors, ergo wonderful show. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but this time…
New Jerusalem, by David Ives and directed by Elina de Santos at the Pico Playhouse, is a magnificent show overflowing with love, betrayal, hatred, and devotion to the spiritual self. It is riveting from the moment actors step on the stage to the moment of its very tragic ending.
Presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre and produced by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse. It’s not that far fetched to believe this remarkable production will have some questioning their beliefs in the higher order of things.
Natheless, the play is David Ives’s fictionalized account of one historical fact: Baruch de Spinoza was summoned to Talmud Torah on Tuesday, July 27, 1656, at the age of 23. And there is no record of what transpired that day in the meetinghouse in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Nation. Though we do know the result.
“Baruch de Spinoza was raised in the Dutch-Jewish community of Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. He came from a family of Sephardic Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition, only to return to Judaism shortly before Baruch’s birth.” – Stephen Fife, WCJT Board
Our play begins behind close door where Abraham van Valkenburgh (Mark Bramhall) is speaking to Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Fancy), an honorable chachamin, (one well versed in Jewish law) and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Shelly Kurtz), a “parnas” of the temple congregation and merchant. They discuss the rabble-rouser, Baruch de Spinoza (Marco Naggar). Abraham believes Baruch’s expressions and ideas are blasphemous and dangerous to the people of Amsterdam. He implores Rabbi Mortera to summon Baruch so that he can make inquiries.
The Rabbi and Gaspar say that Baruch’s credentials are impeccable. They say he is extremely intelligent and can recite endless scripture. He is not a menace to society and is as harmless as anyone can be. The Rabbi agrees to listen before passing judgment.
“He is a threat to the piety and morals of this entire city, and he and his ideas must be stopped. The city’s regents send you this message: Abide by our laws, adhere to the regulations governing your community or face the consequences.” - Abraham
Abraham, adamantine in manner, has some information that places seeds of doubt in their minds. Baruch has not been coming to the synagogue, is giving little money to the congregation, and is romantically linked to a Christian. Also, he has been seen wearing buckles on his shoes. The buckles alone would have considered him to be a heretic.
But most importantly, Abraham tells Saul and Gaspar that it is strictly forbidden by the laws of Amsterdam to practice a religion against the Dutch people. He wants to bring Baruch in for questioning and he believes that a cherem, a form of excommunication, is warranted. The Rabbi agrees to write “Bento” the letter and Baruch will come but he will not participate in the questioning.
Later, Baruch and his friend and roommate Simon de Vries (Todd Cattell) enter a field to take note of the colors of the horizon, the shading, and the light, unaware of what is unfolding around him.
Baruch is the art student and Simon is the teacher. Simon steps closely behind him and instructs him on the finer points of holding a brush. And as they watch the horizon, they have a discussion of life and mathematics, the subject of which Simon does not understand. And slowly Baruch becomes the teacher.
“A man tried to stab me.” – Baruch
There is a slash in his jacket and we have learned that a Dutch cell may have been responsible. This is foreshadowing of events that will come.
Moments later Clara van den Enden (Kate Huffman) enters his periphery. She is the daughter of his landlord and by first glance she is clearly infatuated with him. With love on her mind first, she delivers the letter second. Although very much in love, she wants more from the relationship than Baruch can accommodate.
I’m not perfect. I’m not good. You’re in love with the idea of me.” – Baruch
He tells her he loves her as another person can love someone but beneath the veneer this relationship will not go beyond the point.
There are a number of individuals working behind the scenes to make sure the Dutch will not have their religion defamed, destroyed or misappropriated. In this land, “A Jew is a resident alien.” and Jews are not allowed to defame the Dutch religion.
Baruch attends the meeting with his friend Simon. Gaspar is there as well. Abraham can scarcely believe his eyes the moment he meets Baruch. This is the young man that is the cause of the loud noise within the country is laughable until Baruch explains his position and then all hell breaks loose.
Mark Bramhall as Abraham van Valkenburgh gives a marvelous performance. As the character, he is unwavering in his determination. He does this with humor, anger, and strong conviction. We are made aware of the populace behind him urging him to stop the young man causing all the problems. Bramhall brings the historical context as a weight on his soul. This is an exceptional performance and one not to miss.
Marco Naggar as Baruch de Spinoza is wonderful in this production. As the character, he carefully weighs his options as he listens to the members of another type of inquisition. He listens, speaks clearly, and thinks off the cuff—always imagining the possibilities and striving toward a new way of thinking. His downfall is in trying to explain, in three minutes no less, what has taken him years to understand. His “Clarafication” does nothing to convince the others that there may be a truth to what he believes.
Richard Fancy is fantastic as Saul Levi Mortera. It isn’t difficult to see that he truly loves his student so much that he believes cherem is the last resort. But after a lifetime of study, he is unable to understand the principals of Spinoza’s philosophy and instead only sees that which has been ingrained into his being. Still, he has the weight on the country down upon him and he must take care of the small problem to help the larger populace as a whole.
Shelly Kurtz plays a marvelous character as Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel. He too is skeptical of cherem. He knows this man, Spinoza, and he knows, lives, and breaths the Torah. He also knows that he would never turn on a friend, colleague, and one of his congregational members.
Todd Cattell as Simon de Vries plays the incorruptible compassionate friend that turns on Spinoza. As the spying roommate, he copies Spinoza’s journal word for word and then implicates him by turning over the documents to his uncle Abraham. So sure is he in his Christian beliefs that Spinoza cannot be right and therefore is dangerous to the community. Cattell is wonderful and sinister in one fell swoop.
Kate Huffman was very delicate as Clara van den Enden. As the character, she cannot convince Spinoza that he is the right man for her. While she doesn’t wish this nightmare on anyone, she doesn’t help his case at all by letting the truth out. She tells Abraham that they weren’t speaking of philosophy but rather religion. And she believes in her religion—the religion of goodness, and forthrightness will win them both the day. Well, it just didn’t work out that way but Huffman was marvelous nevertheless.
Brenda Davidson as Rebekah de Spinoza plays the half sister. As the character, she too implicates her brother as not being a good Jew but then says he should not be excommunicated. She has a very strong voice as she sat across the aisle from me and we all participate as part of the congregation.
Elina de Santos does a marvelous job as the director. She paints bold strokes of Baruch’s life in living color for one to witness. The participants may be friends or enemies, they may love or hate him all in the same breath, but in the end Baruch found what he was searching for.
David Ives as the writer has written a marvelous play that takes one back in time to witness the young life of Baruch de Spinoza. He takes us into the tormented lives of the characters and lets us experience the pain. We feel what they have felt, the pain and suffering of the cherem. So much love turned into destructive forces that we must accept the end result as the best result.
All of this would not been possible with the due diligence of the production staff. Diane Alayne Baker is the Associate Producer. Tara Windley is the Assistant Director. Priscilla Miranda is the Stage Manager. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz was the Set Designer and the Costume Designer. Leigh Allen is the Lighting Designer and Bill Froggatt provided the Sound Design. Kurtis Bedford was the Set Builder.