“New Jerusalem” At New Jewish Features Spinoza And His Religious Battles

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John Flack, Greg Johnston and Jim Butz discuss the fate of Spinoza in “New Jerusalem” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Playwright David Ives is well known for his outrageous comedies but, with a bit of mostly wry humor, this play takes on more serious subjects. New Jewish Theatre tackles his profound “New Jerusalem- The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” Spinoza’s most relevant work is his “Ethics” and it changed the way of thinking about religion by a large part of the Western world. Spurning traditional thought of both Jewish and Christian religions, he looked at God as existing in all things but with finite parameters.

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Jim Butz, Rob Riordin and Karlie Pinder in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

For these revelations, he was branded early as an atheist and the leader of the Christian fundamentalists, Abraham van Valkenburgh, has decided he must be excommunicated. In Amsterdam at the time, Jews were “tolerated” rather than accepted into a mostly Christian community. They were allowed to practice their faith but not enter into discussion about it with Christians or profess it to anyone. So his interrogation- which is really a trial- begins in front of the local Jewish congregation overseen by Valkenburgh, Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera- his mentor, and Gaspar Rodrigues ben Israel, a noted member of the religion.

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Will Bonfiglio and Rob Riordin discuss plans for the day in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Jim Butz opens the show as Valkenburgh literally storming the stage and calling for the doors to be closed and locked. He is relentless through this two act play as he hammers at the slightest hint that Spinoza may be garnering any sympathy- he wants to make an example of him. As the young Spinoza, Rob Riordin is not as blustery but equally adamant about his innocence and faith- despite the views that would seem to oppose his background. Their sparring takes on an interesting look into human nature.

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Jennifer Theby-Quinn tells her tale to Jim Butz in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

As the Rabbi, John Flack is magnificent as the teacher who resorts to begging Spinoza (perhaps for his soul more than anything) to denounce his leanings. Jews are in such a tenuous situation in Amsterdam as it is, he believes the whole community may suffer. Will Bonfiglio amazes once again with a surprising twist as Spinoza’s best friend, Simon de Vries. The tables get turned several times during this production which just adds to the pseudo-courtroom drama that unfolds.

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Rob Riordin and Karlie Pinder share a moment in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Greg Johnston plays the rigid ben Israel and Karlie Pinder is solid as Spinoza’s on again/off again girlfriend, Clara van den Eden. Lot’s of twists in this relationship as well. But the biggest turn is from Spinoza’s half sister, Rebekah de Spinoza, played with fire and fury by Jennifer Theby-Quinn. Charging in like a bat out of hell, she is determined as well to send her brother into excommunication but circumstances soon change in her corner as well. That is the power of Spinoza and his strong arguments. It all comes down to the ruling as the Rabbi holds his fate in his hands.

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Will Bonfiglio and Rob Riordin in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Director Tim Ocel has handled this courtroom battle with a deft hand. Aided by the marvelous in-the-round and slightly tilted set of Peter and Margery Spack, he is able to keep the action moving with a great view from all sides of the theatre. The set features a raised center platform with a chess board look which enhances the chess-like moves from everyone involved. The Jon Ontiveros lighting design is brilliant as well as are the utilitarian costumes designed by Michele Friedman Siler.

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John Flack as the Rabbi pleads with Rob Riordin as Spinoza in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

This is far from a dull interrogation, it crackles with one-two punches from every side of the argument and sprinkled with wit and charm. David Ives’ lines like Spinoza’s take on some of the teachings- “There is no Jewish dogma, only bickering”- spice up an already dose of clever and pertinent dialogue. Enjoy this entertaining and informative look at the development of Spinoza and his teachings as it plays at the New Jewish Theatre through April 22nd. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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