NEW JERUSALEM- The interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at
Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
by David Ives
Direction: Jerry Russell
Set Design: Jim Covault
Costume Design: Michael Robinson
Props/Set Decor: Lynn Lovett
Lighting Design: Michael O'Brien
Abraham Van Valkenburgh: Russell Dean Schultz
Saul Levi Mortera: Jim Covault
Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel: Michael Corolla
Baruch de Spinoza: Garret Storms
Simon de Vries: Samuel West Swanson
Clara van den Enden: Barrett Nash
Rebekah de Spinoza: Angela Owen
Reviewed Performance: 1/7/2012
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Solemnity rolled across the theatre like a dark fog. A moment from the past flashed in my mind of the sound of synagogue doors being locked as I prepared to sing the haunting, "Kol nidre" on Yom Kippur?a song that must not be interrupted.
The opening lines of Stage West's drama were delivered with an authoritative tone by Russell Dean Schultz as Abraham Van Valkenburgh, a Dutch political leader and Calvinist. As he walked heavily around the table he cast looks at the audience that seemed to say, "How dare you chatter at this time."
I wanted to stand up and shush everyone and say, "Quiet! Something important is about to begin. For God's sake put your purses and jackets away, stop talking and pay attention." Schultz's ominous playing of Van Valkenburgh had that effect on me with his unwavering gawp and measured steps and the way he moved in his black tights and cloak with a large white collar. Michael Robinson designed the 17th century costumes with authenticity.
Schultz's Van Valkenburgh's shaved head and cold piercing eyes were reminiscent of a serial killer. When he declared, "There is an evil abroad here in our city," I thought, `it takes one to know one.' The city was Amsterdam, the year 1656, the event an interrogation on Baruch de Spinoza (Garret Storms), 23 year old member of the Talmud Torah Congregation.
My expectations for this courtroom scene portrayal about religion were not high on the Richter scale of excitement and frivolity.
While I admit the production had a foreboding feeling of a dense intellectual experience, I can't say that I'd rather have been anywhere else that evening contemplating God, nature and human life right along with the truth-seeking Spinoza.
Spinoza was a young Jewish man with revolutionary thoughts. Garret Storms played the character with almost giggling joyful composure, but managed to also slip in intellectual depth for his numerous philosophical rants.
He was a member of a small Jewish community which fled Portugal to enjoy religious freedom in the supposedly liberal Amsterdam. Baruch talked about his ideas out loud in coffee shops and dared to discuss religion with a Christian girl?strictly against the law. Baruch means "blessed."
Mr. Storms explained to me that his method of line memorization involved learning lines only after meeting his fellow actors and seeing how they'd play off of them. Thus, he accomplished the memorization only since December 22nd - mind boggling given the huge amount of script he had to assimilate.
Stage West's NEW JERUSALEM is a forceful but reflective version of an event in history through the eyes of David Ives' brainy mind. All Ives had to go on was the final declaration/verdict. With that nutshell of information Mr. Ives wove a story, and added a love interest and a roommate to flesh out the historical moment with debates and interactions between characters.
So?go to this drama to laugh a little at Ives' spiteful quirky humor and ponder a few big questions: Who is God? Is there life after death? Where is God in nature?
Dare to attend to be stirred, to contemplate and be inspired. Sitting in a safe corner of the world equals boredom, stagnation, and a moldy mind. I'm sure Baruch de Spinoza would agree.
Good theatre comedy can lift my spirits. Musicals massage my melodious funny bone, but drama like NEW JERUSALEM generates a whole different phenomenon. I boiled over with anticipation for the quirky Mr. Ives to startle or shock me and quite expected him to toss my mind in a blender and stir it to a pulp--in a good way. On Saturday evening at Stage West I was not disappointed. My preexisting thoughts on religion were blended to a new texture and became a completely new dish in my head. Then at intermission I tossed that mixture into a pan, came back to seat E2 in the center and allowed my ideas to bake for another hour. The result at the end of the show: a freshly baked outlook on life.
I had Stage West to thank for this, for a disquieting but still amusing rendering of this play that baked up new notions for me with no recipe alterations such as adding the spice of overdone costumes, or high fiber obtrusive sound effects. Like a cleverly concocted recipe, the writing was lean, purposeful, and yet strangely rich and tasty. The acting was well marinated, with the appropriate ratios of pause, whisper, yell, stare, strut, pout, and weep measured out carefully.
Jim Covault's set design with tall white pillars on each side, a large table, solid chairs, the Torah in the Ark was sparse and effective to depict the interior of a synagogue set up to be a courtroom. Mr. Covault also played the soft spoken, thoughtful but tortured Rabbi Mortera. His own Baruch, a grandson-like student was on trial. Should he defend him and put his congregation at risk or banish his radical student from spreading thoughts that nearly shattered and shook the Torah in its Holy Ark of the Covenant.
Mr. Covault was a prime example of how Stage West did not skimp and use generic ingredients for this play. They shopped for the good stuff, the high quality brands and brought together a list of actors with pure soul ingredients, nothing artificial. Jerry Russell did a masterful job of casting and directing.
Storms had his hands full in taking on this character of Baruch de Spinoza, who was not like any other ingredient previously used to bake the religious pie of Judaism in Amsterdam. Storms was up for the task and portrayed the multi-faceted Spinoza well?like a unicorn in a heard of cows. He purported ideas that bore resemblances to deism, Calvinism, and atheism. His people couldn't digest his ideas that were as scary as believing the earth was round instead of flat or that the sun did not revolve around the earth. So they feared him and sought to banish him. All those present in the trial wavered back and forth from supporting Baruch to condemning him.
His half-sister Rebekah (Angela Owen), seated in the audience, exploded with accusatory remarks, and then apologized. Although Ms. Owen acted the part well, this scene pattern repeated several times and became more tiring than a comic relief. Ben Israel, (Michael Corolla) a Jewish man accompanying the Rabbi also vacillated between supporting and denouncing Baruch. He declared, "You can't persecute a person for being slippery; you'd have to decimate the whole population."
Schultz portrayed Van Valkenburgh with layers--if one watches closely. I perceived his menace as a thin coat of icing which covered a filling inside of utter confusion and panic. He could only solve his dilemma by deleting that undesirable trouble causing ingredient, Baruch de Spinoza, from the pure city of Amsterdam's humankind recipe. In seeking to purify and protect his country, Van Valkenburgh denied his people the opportunity to think, ponder and protect themselves.
Barrett Nash acted the dichotomy that Clara van den Enden struggled through well. As Baruch's love interested she privately embraced his brilliant mind but in the trial professed her fears of the terrifying thoughts he caused her to think. Those notions turned her cake of thoughts upside-down, and although this inverted cake seemed fresh and tantalizing, in the end, she returned to her safe prebaked prescribed and predictable thoughts?the ones she'd heard and memorized all her Christian life.
Storm did a fine job of playing Baruch as a young man full of wonder. As he stared at the lake and sketched it with wide-eyed adoration, the artist in me was there with him. When his roommate Simon (Samuel West Swanson) coached him on how to hold the pencil to sketch "like a bird; not too soft, to capture it, but not too hard to crush it," I rejoiced inside--yes, that was exactly it. Marvelous writing and spectacular in-touch acting.
The actors held their character in a rock-solid manor, so that my suspension of disbelief never swayed?I was a goner, as they say, and couldn't separate myself from the drama. I was a member of the courtroom. At one point in the trial the Dutchman asked us, "Who will speak for this man?"
I looked around the room half expecting an audience member to stand and say, "I will." Even my legs told me stand but I knew this was not the intent of the play. Yet the stirring in my legs was so real I could hardly believe the infusion into my reality. I believed. I had to remind myself it was only a play.
After "cherem" was announced, and the shofar sounded, Baruch sat in a frozen trance as we emptied the theatre. We filed by him and I marveled at his ability to remain entrenched in character while people walked by talking about where their cars were parked. At the reception while visiting with the actors, I felt a certain resistance to believe that the people who moments before were a Jewish man, a rabbi, a scolding sister, and a spying roommate, were now eating brownies and broccoli and chatting about their method for learning lines, playing off each other, and carpooling. Such a contrast. I left the theatre in a blur of new thoughts and admiration for fine directing, writing, and acting.
Although this masterful play which opened off-Broadway in 2008 will certainly be staged and performed again and again for years to come, this fresh baked production is only showing at Stage West through January 29th. Don't miss your chance for a philosophical make over.
Stage West, 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Ft. Worth, TX 76109
Runs through January 29th
Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00pm, & Sundays at 3:00pm Tixs are $26 Thursday & Sunday, & $30 Friday & Saturday. students/under 30 $15. Senior rates available.
Student Rush tixs are $5- ? hour before each performance as available.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.stagewest.org or by calling metro 817-784-9378.