Sunday, April 8, 2018

NEW JERUSALEM • New Jewish Theatre

Most people don’t like to have their views challenged. But when your long-held convictions about religion are upended? Oof. Forget about it. That’s what got Baruch de Spinoza excommunicated from his Jewish community in Amsterdam, as told in David Ives’ cerebral historical drama -- with its mouthful of a subtitle, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Torah Talmud Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.

Spinoza is regarded as an eminent Dutch philosopher, but in his 20’s, he was seen as a pagan when his probing theories about the pervious nature of God and his association with free-thinkers clashed with the provincial religious tenets of the day. Rob Riordan’s portrayal is animated with flashes of inspired observations, and to hear his musings about God’s infusion in all things, Spinoza's passion seems apparent. Still, deference was preferred over dissection, so prosecutor Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz), speaking on behalf of the Christian population, wasn’t having any of it. Imposing and inflexible, Van Valkenburgh pushes for Baruch’s expulsion from society, and Butz seethes with righteous indignation.
Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz),
Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan)
and Clara van den Eden (Karlie Pinder).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey

John Flack’s Chief Rabbi Mortera is Spinoza’s mentor and biggest supporter, but he knows the danger in this determined young man's stepping out of line. Flack’s performance is heavy with the weight of being responsible not only for Spinoza, whom he regards as a son, but for all of the Jews in Amsterdam, whose presence was tolerated more than welcomed. They lived within set restrictions, and while they were admonished to refrain from engaging in religious discussions outside of their own, Spinoza couldn’t help himself. His house-mate, Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), always had an open ear for Spinoza, as did Clara van den Eden (Karlie Pinder), his cautious love-interest, captivated by his intellect and convinced of his devotion.
Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack)
and Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
His half-sister Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), on the other hand, had an axe to grind with Baruch. Her frenzied hatred of him doesn’t last forever though, and Theby-Quinn’s depiction of Rebekah’s anger and eventual course shift is as amusing as it is thoughtful. Greg Johnston is the wavering Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel, the religious leader of the congregation charged with passing the judgement, and with the audience serving as witness to the trial, Spinoza is summoned to the Talmud Torah congregation, and the fiery emotion of the devout is ignited.

Rebekah de Spinoza (Jennifer Theby-Quinn)
and Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Served up in the round under amber lanterns, director Tim Ocel’s crisp pacing holds your attention throughout the script’s heavier conceptual moments and emphasizes its streaks of humor. Jon Ontiveros’ pools of light warmly set off Peter and Margery Spack’s deceptively simple scenic design that puts all of the focus on the performances, which are strong, and Michele Friedman Siler provides nicely appointed costumes. 

With his refusal to blindly accept indoctrinated religious ideas, his embrace of a decidedly Eastern bend, and the nerve to put angels on par with unicorns, Baruch de Spinoza was bold and way ahead of his time, and NJT’s telling of his story is well worth checking out.

Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio)
and Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
• Come on, people. Turn your phones off.


Written by David Ives
Directed by Tim Ocel
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through April 22 | tickets: $41 - $44
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan)
and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Abraham Van Valkenburgh: Jim Butz*
Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera: John Flack*
Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel: Greg Johnston
Baruch de Spinoza: Rob Riordan
Simon de Vries: Will Bonfiglio
Clara van den Eden: Karlie Pinder
Rebekah de Spinoza: Jennifer Theby-Quinn

Stage Manager: Sarah Luedloff*
Scenic Designers: Peter & Margery Spack
Lighting Designer: Jon Ontiveros
Props Master: Margery Spack
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Assistant Stage Manager: Isabel Garcia
Master Electrician & Board Operator: Nathan Schroeder
Wardrobe: Craig Jones

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

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