Theater J examines philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Baruch 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Baruch 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WASHINGTON – ‘Funny” is not usually the word that springs to mind when examining the theological arguments and fate of one of Jewry’s greatest philosophers, but it is a tribute to the deft treatment playwright David Ives gives to his subject matter that it is one of the first adjectives that emerge after a performance of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.
It is also a testament to the careful handling and creative presentation that director Jeremy Skidmore and the cast at the Washington Jewish Community Center’s Theater J provide for the play’s DC-area premier.
Though set in 1656, the year that the Jewish community weighed excommunicating Spinoza for his heretical ideas, the irony and modern humor of its characters is echoed by artful modern dress, props such as ballpoint pens and hip satchels and the incorporation of the actual audience into the religious trial unfolding before it to make the point that the philosophical problems exposed remain relevant.
Questions of whether nature expresses divinity or negates it, whether reason and religion are mutually exclusive and whether tolerance can be viewed relatively rather than absolutely continue to occupy the common space.
These weighty topics are portrayed in turn lightly and starkly, Socratically and dogmatically, but always in a manner that is thought-provoking and compelling to the audience.
This is not a cerebral play that makes its viewers feel like they have spent hours enduring a dense lecture – this is a living, breathing production in which the audience can derive enjoyment as well as edification from what it observes.
And it is edifying, if not quite historically accurate. As the program notes point out, the thoughts and arguments of Spinoza considered during the production were not fully articulated by the philosopher himself until close to his death.
Yet this play, which takes place when Spinoza is in his early 20s, still offers the flavor of life in Renaissance Amsterdam and portrays the relative freedom and safety the city provided to Jews; even though the community accepted demeaning legal and communal boundaries, other countries were still shedding the scourges of the Inquisition.
It also lovingly communicates to the audience something of the nature of the Jewish community that flourished there, the interdependence and deep relationships forged in times of stress and opportunity. Indeed, one of the central issues explored in New Jerusalem is the extent of the obligation one has to his community – including how far cherished beliefs can be challenged without destroying the bonds that tie its members together.
As such, the way the play includes the audience strengthens the overriding sense of community and shared destiny, where one wayward participant can shape the fates of his fellows.
The characters roam throughout the theater; the front row of the crowd is part of the court-inflected set; and second-person addresses from the stage to those who are watching punctuate actors’ lines.
It is clear that the audience are witnesses in both the artistic and legal sense, and their own obligation is not merely to appreciate and applaud, but to wrestle with the consequential subjects laid before them.