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What happens when a playwright known for his distinctive, absurd flavor of comedy sets his sights on drama? If David Ives is any indication, it unleashes torrents of long-suppressed brilliant philosophical discourse, as evidenced by his New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. The show's Midwest premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, directed by David J. Magidson, is a seriously smart piece of historical fiction raising questions of philosophy, ethics, and religion that formed the basis of a pre-Enlightenment ethos.

The facts are these: on the date in question, Baruch de Spinoza was summoned to Talmud Torah Congregation in Amsterdam, where he had until recently been studying to become a rabbi; the same day, a cherem was issued against him, effectively excommunicating him and severing all ties to his faith and people. What remain unknown, and what Ives ventures to imagine, are the specifics of what was said and done that led to such a harsh and irreversible sentence. At the center of the controversy, young upstart Baruch (Mitchell Koory) is luminous with conviction, a man of supreme intellect who meets his spiritual needs by using science and logic to merge the God he loves with the world he understands. Wrongly accused of atheism, Baruch has actually conceived of a divinity that has strengthened rather than diminished his faith; the delight in his discovery is so powerful, in fact, he is compelled to disseminate the ideology as a better way to worship. His religious superiors are troubled that these ideas may directly contradict the Jewish Articles of Faith, and local governmental authorities take offense that he has discussed his philosophies with Christians, violating the rules under which Jews and Christians have agreed to coexist in Holland (where Jews have come to flee the Spanish Inquisition). The play’s two acts begin like a college-level discussion of philosophy, but veer into a kind of informal trial presided over by both church and state. Yet the production succeeds in emphasizing discourse rather than contentiousness — instead of resorting to defensiveness, Koory’s performance is purely enthusiastic, keen on debate and reason rather than self-preservation.

Of the many other players in this drama, each has unique reasons to oppose the young scholar as well as to connect with him. Holding responsibility for Baruch’s future as a Jew is Gaspar Rodrigues ben Israel (Phil Powers), upon the advisement of Saul Levi Mortera (Loren Bass), Baruch’s tutor and rabbi. At first passing the buck peevishly between them, sycophantic Powers and dissenting Bass reluctantly evolve into ideological enemies of the accused, the complexity of their responses undercut by the binary yes-or-no decision they must make. Forcing their hand is officious Abraham van Valkenburgh (Hugh Maguire), who champions the tolerance of the Dutch people and government he represents, even as he fairly extorts concessions from the temple leaders as the price of such tolerance. Costumes by Mary Copehnagen use hue and detail to further divide the Dutch-citizen Christians from the distinguished-guest Jews, shining a light on the latters’ outsider status. Sarah Tanner’s all-white set emerging from the black recesses of the stage provides a blank canvas whose clearly defined duality nicely contrasts the nuances of the characters’ motivations. Lighting by Donald Fox and properties by Diane Ulseth are minimally invasive, the sense of using only what’s necessary contributing to the imaginary feel of a show that engages the viewer’s brain on the highest level.

Magidson’s direction never shies away from the intellectual wonder of Ives’s text; however, it also triumphs in the emotional conflicts. In particular, Caroline Price blasts onstage as Baruch’s half-sister, her hatred and resentment exploding in perfectly controlled detonations for a remarkably vitriolic scene. A slower but perhaps even more painful fallout comes in the form of Simon de Vries (Rob Pantano), a Christian and friend; as his motives are revealed, Pantano plays notes of reluctance and shame that reinforce how his very character is as much a letdown to Baruch as his actions have been. The final player on this chessboard of allegiances is Clara van den Enden (Christina Flynn), both the perfect willing student and the perfect star-crossed love. Clara’s role in Baruch’s undoing is bittersweet — Flynn captures the spirit of a self-possessed young woman whose own naivete (perpetuated by her privilege as a Christian) becomes startlingly clear.

There are hints of unevenness in this production of New Jerusalem; most notably, varying approaches to the text occasionally pit stylized delivery against natural dialogue, suggestive of an absent unifying tone. However, on the whole, Magidson and company have proved masters of this wordy, heady script, demonstrating a keen grasp of shifting allegiances and conversation threads. This is a world in which the viewer can feel the futility of being beset by enemies, then in the next moment be overcome by a display of true brotherhood and friendship; conveying ever-changing perceptions and minds with clarity and ease is the greatest accomplishment of this talented ensemble. Although the production gives its central character the hero’s treatment, it carefully refuses to make plain villains of any of his adversaries, but instead challenges the viewer to engage on several levels; the result is a show whose rewards are multiplied the more its audience ponders and questions its themes.


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