This work by David Ives is based upon the true story of the 1656 heresy hearing of philosopher Baruch Spinoza by fellow Jews of his Amsterdam synagogue, at the conclusion of which a cherem, or writ of excommunication, was issued. History tells us the saintly and brilliant 23 year old lived out the remainder of his short life as a writer and lens grinder, quietly preparing books that would release a posthumous intellectual tidal wave.
Anytime you put a thinker onstage, you run the risk of leaden didacticism. To be sure, potential audiences should come prepared to exercise metaphysical and theological muscles; you will dip into rationalism, pantheism, the nature of the soul, mortality, and the status of revealed truth. But, remarkably, complex levels of dramatic tension, a colorful array of characters, and Ives’s lightning wit make the going buoyant.
Brian Kolb plays a boyish Spinoza, who is confident enough to enthuse about his budding ideas but reverent enough to be torn by his mentor’s hostility. Ed Giron (director/actor) plays Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera with extraordinary gravity that flips from paternal affection for his wayward charge to blood-boiling outrage that stands hair on end. William Waxman brings a ripe mixture of ambiguity and ambition to the vindictive Abraham van Valkenburgh, while Jesi Vasquez summons a sweet ardor as Clara, Spinoza’s platonic love interest. The cast also features able performances by Aden Hailu, Phil Levere, and producer Jerry Oshinsky.
New Jerusalem will play dear to anyone who enjoys the hindsight story of a persecuted light-bringer. It will stir up questions about the present forms of persisting social problems, as well as the ironies of rationalism in the age of applied science. Minds and wounds are always opened simultaneously in philosophy. Comfort is the alternative, but it is deadly dark.