New Jerusalem Offers Muddy History Lesson

Michael Hugh Torsch and Rachel Weber (front) and James Ramlet and George Muellner in <em>New Jerusalem</em>.

Michael Hugh Torsch and Rachel Weber (front) and James Ramlet and George Muellner in New Jerusalem.

David Ives built his reputation on tight, short plays that weren't afraid to tackle deep and even obtuse subjects. Even more recent full-length pieces, like Venus in Fur, balanced the philosophy with an intense, narrative drive.

Ives's New Jerusalem is a sprawling, diffuse piece chock full of intriguing ideas that offer a window into the birth pains of modern intellectual thought that, even though the show has been around for a number of years, feels like it is an edit or two away from completion.

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The play's full subtitle offers more information: "The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656."

On this date, the young philosopher Spinoza was brought before his congregation to answer charges that he had been spreading blasphemous teachings around Amsterdam. As the play outlines, this was dangerous not just to the man, but the whole Jewish community, who had found an uneasy home in relatively tolerant Holland. The solution: expel the young, studious man from the Jewish faith.

Ives's play imagines the discussion that occurred that day, including Spinoza's spirited defense and the various charges brought against him. When delving into the young man's philosophy -- from the interaction of God and the physical laws of the universe to the idea that a fair government is one divorced from religion (sadly, still a radical thought) -- Ives presents a rich brew of thoughts that can be intoxicating.

Other factors, like the betrayal of a close friend and Spinoza's courting of a young Christian woman, don't blend nearly as well, creating some jarring moments in the play when you just want everyone to shut up about everyday problems and get back to the thinking.

Kurt Schweickhardt's directing is solid, but lacks imagination. There is a lot of static action while the group just looks on as Spinoza talks and talks and talks. Michael Torsch makes for an arresting presence as Spinoza, shifting from a naughty schoolboy called before the principal to someone battling for his faith and community.

George Muellner and James Ramlet stand out as the two elder leaders of different Amsterdam communities, Muellner as the mentally and spiritually rigorous lead rabbi of the congregation, Ramlet as the representative of the Christian majority in Amsterdam. The rest of the cast members, representing Spinoza's friends, family, and others in the Jewish community, don't make much of an impression.

In the end, Ives travels down many blind alleys and offers up unfocused motivation for the characters that gets in the way of the far more intriguing philosophy at play.


New Jerusalem Through November 9 Hillcrest Center Theater 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul $19-$28 For tickets and more information, call 651.647.4315 or visit online.