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Banned in Amsterdam

October 11, 2011 By:
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Sam Henderson as Baruch de Spinoza and Mary Tuomanen as Clara van den Eden get into a philosophical discussion in the Lantern Theater's production of "New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656," by David Ives. Photo by Mark Garvin

David Ives, a thinking man's playwright, approaches theater philosophically.

These days, it's philosophy which he has made approachable theatrically.
 
Luckily, there's no limit on marquee space for his latest effort: New Jerusalem, the Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.
 
"It says it all," avows Ives with a chuckle.
 
A chuckle is how theatergoers may be used to reacting to Ives' acclaimed efforts; he has made his reputation for comic works that work off the acrobatic aesthetics of wordplay.
 
His new play works somewhat differently, at least dramatically, casting philosopher Spinoza against the Jewish community he was part of in 17th-century Amsterdam, where his iconoclastic accounts of the heavens and earth fell flat on Jewish ears. Ives' work airs it all out -- a community's dirty laundry -- communicating the hearsay and heresy surrounding the famous philosopher, ultimately ex-communicated by the Jews who, ironically, admired and respected the intellectual prowess of the renegade they felt had turned on them.
 
And, yet, what would an Ives play be without its humor? The language is littered with lancing and spiked spins even as the issues of theological defiance and devilishly argued arraignments of belief and faith befall one and all.
 
The Lantern Theater's Philadelphia premiere production at its homespace at St. Stephen's Theater in Center City (see: www.lanterntheater.org for a series of seminars related to the play) uses the backdrop of the Portuguese Inquisition from which the Spinoza family had fled before settling in Amsterdam. At the heart of the play lies the question: What price freedom of speech -- and of mind?
 
Ives is of the mind that there is much to learn today from the philosopher long heralded as an eminent rationalist on religion, whose broadsides at Judaism and its Bible-based history were based on his own beliefs that the greatest stories ever told were told with a wink at truthfulness.
 
God was in the details of his declarations, which placed Him not in the heavens as much as in the realm of imagination.
 
For this, Spinoza won -- with the assistance of Amsterdam's Christian community, which considered his railings off-the-rail morally -- the ultimate Jewish communal banishment and censure, the cherem.
 
Ives dug deep inside himself -- alongside outside sources -- to bring Spinoza to this stage of history. "One of Spinoza's greatest gifts was to dig deep down inside" for his, at the time, over-the-top ruminations rejecting God as a given.
 
This did not exactly endear Spinoza to the local rabbinate. The Christian community was also up in arms for his secular treatment of what they considered the sacred trust between man and God. "There was such a contrast between the lovability of the man himself and the rigor of his philosophy," a contrast, concedes Ives, "that makes for a great leading character."
 
Ancient history is nothing new for Ives, whose Ancient History just a few years back pitted Jew against Catholic, in less sacred surroundings. But Ives, the former Catholic seminary student and forever semanticist, says, "The line between a seminary and synagogue is a hair."
 
 
Seth Reichgott as Abraham van Valkenburgh in a pointed discussion with Sam Henderson's Baruch de Spinoza in "New Jerusalem." 
Photo by Mark Garvin
Here, Spinoza is seen as an emissary of what would evolve into the Enlightenment, where the supreme source that was God was not so much pushed aside as relocated. One need not be a great thinker to see how the play's thematic threads play out for current-day society, where some theological revisionists in this country are eager to cram Creationism down the throats of non-believers.
 
In a way, the play portends the American Revolution, argues one familiar with the text. "The ideas that Spinoza came up with led to the Enlightenment and to the founding of the United States," asserts Charles McMahon, Lantern artistic director, directing this production. McMahon quotes dialogue from Ives attributed to Spinoza: "A state without religion is the only state where true religion can flourish." "In a way," adds McMahon, "Spinoza was predicting America" more than 100 years before it happened as a free nation.
 
But were Spinoza's predictions those of a self-hating Jew? McMahon hedges: "Spinoza was a tremendous scholar of Judaism," a byproduct of "the traditions of extraordinary scholarship by the Sephardic community." Such a mindset also meant he examined all facets of a question using the "process of Talmudic argument."
 
There can be no argument that Spinoza was a fascinating character, concurs Ives. This play, previously produced off-Broadway in 2008, attracts what the playwright concedes are "Spinoza groupies," those who find their own sense of enlightenment by examining the man's track record.
 
No secret that Ives also has his own groupies, many of whom follow his plays -- especially the comical All in the Timing (1993). His current work, Broadway's Venus in Fur -- a free adaptation of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book on sado-masochism -- seems of a totally different philosophical bent than what's at the Lantern now.
 
His Is He Dead?, an adaptation of what had been an unproduced Twain play, and New Jerusalem shared New York stages at the same time in 2008. Never the Twain -- and the Spinoza -- philosophies would meet. "Twain would have turned up his nose at Spinoza," laughs Ives of the legendary American author who was "crabby and a grouch" compared to the warmer Spinoza.
 
It is no secret that Ives has no philosophical differences with the idea of Spinoza breaching Broadway some day. For now, the playwright is spinning audiences' minds with Spinoza's, well aware that his play at the Lantern -- shedding light through its philosophical discourse on the very nature of Judaism -- is opening amid the High Holidays.
 
All in the timing? "The best of timing."
 

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