Backstage: 'New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza' at Theater J

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Director Jeremy Skidmore and actor Alexander Strain like working together on difficult material -- "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" for Forum Theatre, "My Name Is Asher Lev" for Round House and now "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza" at Theater J through July 25.

Jeez, you guys. How about "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," or something else light of heart for a change?

Nah. Too easy.

Both director and actor like scripts they can chew on, metaphorically. David Ives's play is based on (with fictionalized dialogue) the excommunication in 1656 of the young philosopher and sometime rabbinical student Spinoza by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for heretical views about God that he refused to recant.

Skidmore says he chose to do the play because of the beauty he sees in Ives's writing, and to do it in modern dress because of its "really, really contemporary" language and ideas. "The philosophical debate that is had in the play is one that I wanted to make as immediate as possible," the director says. "We felt that if we put the costumes in total period, it would allow the audience to distance themselves."

Spinoza, says Skidmore, "bases his philosophy of God very much in science and math. . . . Einstein was once asked if he believed in God, and he was quoted as saying, 'I believe in Spinoza's God.' " Skidmore says Spinoza posited that "God is matter -- that He is the thing that makes up everything in the universe." This did not go over well with the Talmud Torah Congregation elders in 1656, nor with the Christian powers in Amsterdam who allowed the Jews to live there unmolested, though under restrictions.

"Without a doubt, the biggest challenge was finding a way to make philosophy active," Skidmore says. "It's a very wonderful play to read, and then the challenge is finding a way to make that dimensional and emotional and personal."

For Strain, who plays Spinoza, the challenges have been just as great. "This is by far the hardest play I've ever worked on, because it's all about ideas . . . what it meant for someone to say the kinds of things that he was saying, because most of us living in the United States have never experienced a state religion. . . . I think that's why the play is pertinent. It does sort of hold up a lens to [ask ourselves] how tolerant are we."

Strain says he was lucky enough to have been nearly a double major in college, studying both theater and philosophy, so he had read Spinoza. The play happens before the scholar had fully shaped his rationalist beliefs, left Amsterdam and become, famously, a lens grinder. So Strain focused on the personal.

"Spinoza is regarded as one of the foremost Enlightenment philosophers," explains the actor. "You anticipate that these kinds of people, these revolutionary thinkers, must be incredibly charismatic, defiant . . . and that wasn't how Spinoza acted at all. . . . He was, by all accounts, a very gentle soul . . . a very sort of humble and solitary figure, it seems."

A director's magic

Lots of people gas on about "the magic of theater," but director Paul Bosco McEneaney takes the expression literally. The artistic director of Cahoots NI [Northern Ireland] children's theater company began his career performing what he calls "table magic" to help pay the bills. He also has experience, he says, as a stilt walker, fire eater and unicyclist, having trained at the Belfast Circus as well as drama school there.

Now McEneaney has brought his brand of stage prestidigitation to bear on "How I Became a Pirate" at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. Alyn Cardarelli adapted Melinda Long's book (illustrated by David Shannon) for the stage, with music by Steve Goers. It will run through Aug. 14 in the company's summer Pirate Repertory with "Pirates! A Boy at Sea" (July 2-Aug. 15), a world-premiere play by Charles Way (July 2-Aug. 15).

"How I Became a Pirate" is intended for kids 3 and older, and McEneaney says that during rehearsals some observers wondered whether a big storm scene would be "way too much." The director thought not, though he says he'd use the same stormy effects for older kids. "If I was doing this show for 13-, 14-year-olds, I'd have the same storm," he maintains. Children are "more open" to stage effects than adults may realize, he adds, arguing little ones can handle more, "both in visual effects . . . and in content as well" on the stage.

In his staging of "Pirate," McEneaney has the buccaneers "row" their dinghy up and down the aisles and interact with the audience. "We've opened this door -- we've crashed down the fourth wall. . . . It just lets the child in -- not only to the story, but to the performance . . . the story's happening to them, as well," he says.

There are at least three actual magic tricks woven into the show by the director, one involving an onstage disappearance/reappearance. They didn't all go according to plan at the first preview, but McEneaney seemed determined they'd fall into place.

Children, the director says, deserve the best stagecraft -- "the same production standards that we adults expect. . . . Children are not the audience of tomorrow. They're an audience right now."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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