Review: New Jerusalem (Harold Green Jewish Theatre)

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New Jerusalem examines an outcast’s trials at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre in Toronto

It’s difficult to grasp, through a modern lens, what risks Baruch de Spinoza was taking when he refused to recant his early theories about body and mind, God and man, in Amsterdam in 1656. But indeed he was cast out of his community, and his city, from the affections of his family and his teacher and his friends during a time when most people never travelled more than 25 miles from their homes. New Jerusalem, at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, re-enacts the final trial with bravado and style, if also perhaps a little more verbiage than necessary (not unlike Spinoza himself).

The show begins in the lobby; attendees are asked to imagine ourselves in the marketplace of Amsterdam, with soapbox preachers and vendors (one very committed man with a box of dried apricots in anachronistic fluted paper cups) and a crush of people, many of them standing and not so happy about it. The twenty minutes we spend hearing the charges against Spinoza and then watching him hear of them as he idles over coffee and beer strongly resemble the rest of the show: all the actors are very good, the language is a charming blend of modern diction and archaic idiom, and it still feels too long.

Aris Athanasopoulos, in the title role, is everything you might want young Spinoza to be – enthusiastic and graceful and appropriately arrogant. Director Mitchell Cushman manages Spinoza’s internal tension between wanting to be right and wanting to belong with a deft touch, as he does the interplay between Spinoza’s chief accuser (supercilious city father Abraham Van Valkenberg, played by David Hanrahan) and his chief supporter (Rabbi Saul Mortera, played with perfect gravitas by Alon Nashman). It’s really quite good to watch.

I wish, however, that I could have a word with playwright David Ives. While I respect his desire to fully, completely catalogue the many ideas of the great philospher and ethicist Baruch de Spinoza, there’s just too much of it. This show, trimmed down by about twenty percent, could be thrilling – an emotional tug of war, with a brilliant young man’s life hanging in the balance. Ives is so desperate to show every facet of the philosophy, however, that there’s very little time for the audience to take a breath or think about anything, and the actors always seem to be pacing themselves so they can get through all of it.

I wish I could recommend this show for any theatre lover, but as it turns out I can only recommend it unreservedly for lovers of history and philosophy. Cushman and the cast quite clearly see the heart of this play, but I fear they’ve been saddled with too much text to really show it to the audience.

Details:

  • New Jerusalem plays until 13 April at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street until 13 April
  • Performances are Sat/Tues/Wed/Thurs at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7pm, with an additional Wednesday matinee at 1pm.
  • Tickets are $56 each and can be had online or by calling Ticketmaster at 1-855-985-2787