By Amy Wolff Sorter
There is a great deal of time and distance between 17th century Amsterdam and 21st century Fort Worth. But in producing David Ives’ play “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656,” Stage West portrays a 356-year-old- story about God, philosophy, Judaism, exile and excommunication in Holland to modern audiences in North Texas.
The play revolves around a notable Jewish and philosophical event: The day on which Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was placed in cherem (excommunication) by Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders for what were considered heretical views. Though history has plenty to say about Spinoza’s exile (the excommunication writ, in Portuguese, is still in existence), it’s silent about the 1656 hearing that reduced Spinoza from brilliant philosopher to heretic and exile. New York playwright Ives stepped into that gap, writing his version of what could have happened at the hearing. The result is a two-hour script that creates conflicting philosophies and pits staid ideas against new thought and perceived heresy.
And this, said Stage West’s producing director Jerry Russell, is what is so fascinating about the play. “The two things you don’t want to talk about in mixed company are religion and politics,” commented Russell, who is the play’s artistic director. “Here you have a play that takes a broad, philosophical look at religion, not just the Jewish religion, and it goes beyond that into a political commentary.”
The play, in and of itself, is an interesting piece of work. What’s even more interesting, however, is how it came to be on a Fort Worth stage. Russell explained that Stage West selects six scripts a year out of the thousands circulating out there — and in putting together a season, Stage West’s staff looks for a balance of comedy, drama and intellectual thought. Furthermore, a play produced on the Stage West’s stage needs to fit within the theater company’s casting and technical capabilities.
“New Jerusalem,” Russell noted, fit the theater company’s technical and casting parameters. Furthermore, it packed a powerful emotional and intellectual punch when the staff read it. “This play is a smart play; a very powerful play,” Russell commented. “It’s about the biggest ideas you could possibly confront.”
Another positive for Russell and his cast was that there were reams of information out there about Spinoza, his views and the story of his exile. The availability of that information was important when it came to “prepping” for the play itself. Also of enormous help was Beth-El Congregation’s Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, who attended some of the early rehearsals and helped with the “Judaic” aspects of the play. There is one point in the play, Russell said, during which a Torah is removed from the Holy Ark. “We were told how to hold it, handle it and pass it from one person to the other,” he said.
Even with all this valuable information, however, challenges remained when it came to producing the play. “It’s one thing to be interested in the cerebral aspects of a play like this; the philosophies, language and ideas,” Russell said. “But when you start to put it on the stage, you have to find other dynamics to make the play live.” Simply espousing Spinoza’s thoughts and philosophies is well and good, but it doesn’t work 100 percent on the stage. “You have to find and extenuate the conflicts going on to make it something that people can become engaged with,” Russell pointed out. “I wanted people on the edge of their seats with this.”
One way in which Russell and his cast focused on audience engagement was by breaking the fourth wall, in other words, that invisible “wall” existing between the stage and its audience. In the Stage West production, the audience is thrust into the role of Talmud Torah’s congregation, where it becomes intimately involved with that shul’s deliberations and counsel pertaining to Spinoza.
Breaking that fourth wall is tricky, Russell acknowledged. But in the opening night performance, he was relieved to see that it worked. “The audience was engaged,” he said. “I was told this was the best show they’d seen in awhile.”
Though “New Jerusalem” details an important piece of philosophical and Jewish history, the play’s themes about God and philosophical thought ring true today to all theater-goers. In other words, it’s not really a stretch to mount a story about Dutch Jews from the 17th century on in a 21st century Fort Worth theater. “The debate about Spinoza’s thoughts and ideas continue to shift,” Russell said. “Attitudes toward him are constantly in flux; he’s still a large part of our discussions today.”
“New Jerusalem” runs through Sunday, Jan. 29 at Stage West at 821 West Vickery Boulevard. Performances take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information call 817-784-9378 or visit www.stagewest.org.