Stage Animal What Spinoza and Don Juan Have in Common

Although the 17th-century Jewish philosopher and his fictional contemporary were vanquished by their societies, victory was theirs in the long run.

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At first I saw no connection between the two plays I saw last week: "New Jerusalem," writer David Ives' play about the excommunication of 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Moliere's classic "Don Juan." But upon closer scrutiny, I discovered they had more in common than I thought, primarily the fact that neither Spinoza nor his fictional contemporary Don Juan was willing to hew to the kind of belief in God that prevailed in their societies, and that both did believe unquestioningly in the same thing: mathematics.

I saw the Israeli premiere of "New Jerusalem" at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, under the direction of Sinai Peter. The show, which first opened in New York in 2008, is an imagined reconstruction of the investigation leading up to the Dutch Jewish community's excommunication of Baruch Benedict Spinoza, the philosopher whose way of thinking so frightened Dutch society in 1656 - both Christian and Jewish - that the Jewish community was pressured to expel him from their midst.

Though director Alexander Morpov's version of "Don Juan" premiered at the Gesher Theater in Jaffa 18 months ago, I saw it only last week. The protagonist of Moliere's play, which was written in 1665, is the man whose name has become a synonym for seducers of women, a character based on Spanish plays from the end of the 16th century. But there is more to Don Juan than lust; he is also a heretic who challenges the society in which he lives, especially with regard to religion. True, the Don Juan described by the French playwright does not hesitate to abduct his beloved from her convent, but he also delves into the realms of philosophy, religion and mathematics when the libertine (played by Sasha Demidov ) tells his servant Sganarelle (Dvir Benedek ) that he does not believe in heaven, hell, God or the devil, only in the fact that two plus two equals four.

Similarly, Ives has Clara Van den Enden (Ortal Avinoam ), the non-Jewish woman who falls in love with Spinoza (and he with her ), saying that Spinoza (Vitali Friedland ) is intoxicated by God and mathematics, and that they are one and the same.

Not only did both Spinoza and Don Juan challenge their society, but both were vanquished by their respective societies in the short term - Spinoza through excommunication and Don Juan by being condemned to hell (in Moliere's version, at least ). But the ideas for which Spinoza was condemned have lived on for centuries after his early death, at 44, and Don Juan has become a household name. In the long run, then, victory was theirs.

Not enough emotion

Beyond the similarities between these two figures, these are two entirely different theatrical stories.

"New Jerusalem" is dramatically flawed. One of the problems is that it is largely a detailed theoretical discussion of Spinoza's philosophy on matters of God, man and the world. This is nice in that it constitutes a basic philosophy seminar everyone can understand; it is no wonder that Spinoza's sister (Carmit Mesilati Kaplan ), who is hostile to him in matters of inheritance, is suddenly surprised that she understands what he is arguing. But that doesn't provide the emotion necessary to propel dramatic action.

That's partly because of the abstract - even if important and intellectually fascinating - discussion, but also because there is in fact no real dramatic conflict here. Spinoza, it turns out, was not cowed by the threat of excommunication. He understood, better than the representatives of the Jewish and non-Jewish establishment in Amsterdam who wanted to kick him out, that he had nothing to lose. This is evident even during the debate over his excommunication. The audience realizes quite quickly, both because of the perspective afforded by the intervening centuries and because of what happens in the play itself, that this excommunication game is for him not much more than a formality.

The more minor characters are not fully developed, though the audience does get a glimpse of some personal conflicts on the sidelines. These actors all do good work within the limits of their characters, but those limits are considerable.

"New Jerusalem" has won praise and prizes in the United States, presumably because of the seriousness of its intentions, its intellectual quality and the eloquence of the dramatic writing, all of which are very impressive. Ives has to his credit many plays, and focuses a lot on the politics of identity, such as being a Jew in America. Incidentally, he has also written an amusing play about Don Juan being offered a Faustian bargain.

It would seem that "New Jerusalem" director Sinai Peter, who often deals with contemporary social content oriented theater and who draws an explicit connection between his production and the reality of life in Israel, appears to be aware of the play's dramatic shortcomings. That is presumably why he attempts to make the audience part of the play, by seating the witnesses in Spinoza's interrogation in the front row of the audience.

He also adds two commedia dell'arte scenes, involving masked figures, at the start of each of the two acts of the play. In the first, two caricatured figures of Jews are swaying in prayer while engaging in commerce - a rather repulsive representation of the Jew, heir to the worst anti-Semitic traditions. As though to balance this by criticizing Christian religious leaders as well, the scene also features a priest who distributes the host even to the Jews, who accept it gladly, and to a girl whom the priest paws enthusiastically. Spinoza watches all this in amazement.

Apart from the bad taste in all this, it seems to me to be totally off-target. Spinoza's argument was not with the perversity or corruption of the religious establishments, but rather with the idea of God and of believing in a deity. By the same token, Spinoza's conflict with the community in which he lived is poles apart from the argument today between the secular and the religious nowadays, whether here or in the United States.

The second commedia dell'arte scene features masked figures surgically removing Spinoza's brain and guts, just in case the audience doesn't understand that this is what the community leaders in Amsterdam are attempting to do by other means.

Two faces

"Don Juan" is a completely different kind of production. Morpov, as seen in Gesher's recent staging of "Prima Donna," is a disciple of the school of theatrical celebrations. He also utilizes commedia dell'arte, but in the sense of entertainment and improvisation. This is also evident in the use of the audience (Don Juan ventures into the aisles to distribute his calling card to women in the audience) and in the permission the actors have been granted to add their own material to their written lines, which Benedek uses to great effect (he once even managed to get a laugh out of Demidov ). All this is likeable, though it is quite scattered in the first part of the play and becomes rather wearying despite the amusement.

In contrast to Spinoza, Don Juan has two faces: lover and heretic. Yes, he desires women (incidentally, in most of the works about him he lusts after them but hardly ever makes love without interference; he never achieves satisfaction ). However, this aspect is so obvious that productions of the play, this one included, rarely take it seriously. Apart from Don Juan's charm, which he casually scatters (one of Demidov's favorite gestures here is the arm dangling in the air at shoulder level, in charming nonchalance ), it is not all that clear what attracts women to him, aside from his reputation.

Like many directors, Morpov appears to think that Moliere's play doesn't tell us enough about this aspect of Don Juan, who exerts his charms mainly on gullible farm girls. Morpov adds some scenes from Mozart's opera about the same character, namely one in which Don Juan rapes Donna Anna. But all this belongs to the first part of the production, in which there is is a huge hullabaloo of village fishermen characters, with a stage scene of the sea inspired by the river-crossing scene in "The King and I" (the ripples of a length of cloth create an illusion of waves, quite an impressive low-tech effect ).

The most interesting part of Moliere's play, as distinct from the other plays about Don Juan, is the second part, in which he is not the lover but the heretic. For unlike Spinoza, who does believe in God (but defines him in a way different from his contemporaries and many of our own contemporaries ), Moliere's Don Juan is not a believer. Incidentally, here the director misses out on a likable hint Moliere left for sharp-eared spectators about Don Juan's faith, or lack thereof: When Sganarelle questions him, the main character declares he does not believe in God or in heaven, but when asked if he believes in the devil, he replies: "Oh yes."

In this part of Morpov's production Don Juan wears black, and in contrast to the levity with which he relates to lovemaking, he is utterly serious in his challenge against God. In one scene, he tries to convince a beggar to spit at the cross, and nearly kills him (altogether, in Morpov's "Don Juan" the trigger-happy protagonist fights his sword-brandishing adversaries with a pistol, which doesn't make him especially fair or noble ).

Unlike in Moliere's play, in which Don Juan descends to hell at the end, leaving Sganarelle to complain that the heretic still owes him his salary, in Morpov's version Don Juan remains on the stage despite challenging God and the devil with his heresy. Because Don Juan could be so right that the theater's deus ex machina cannot punish him, for this is the world that is his lot - no God and no devil. Just evil.

One actor

Another thing common to the two productions, which I realized only because I saw them in the same week, is the fact that both have a single actor at their center, whose presence has an outsize effect on the audience's experience of the play as a whole.

In "New Jerusalem" that actor is Vitali Friedland in the role of Spinoza, a young actor who has been prominent in the Khan troupe, primarily in roles in which his youth and his excellent physical abilities stood out (he is Scapin in Moliere's "The Scams of Scapin" ). Here, though, he has been given a role that relies almost entirely on the ability to speak a text and to impress the audience with thespian intelligence. He is shaping up to be a well-rounded actor whom it will be very interesting to follow, as we see how and whether he has the opportunity to make the most of the clear richness of his talents and abilities. He is certainly one of the reasons the theoretical discussion in this play has vitality (no pun intended ).

At the center of "Don Juan" is Sasha Demidov, who is a proven quality on the stage, perhaps the embodiment of the spirit of Gesher. Here he is interesting mainly in the second part, when he deviates from the amused, nonchalant facade that comes so easily to him, and he becomes chilling, assertive and bitter, less aware of his own charm.

At the same time, it seems to me that as he has become increasingly successful on the Israeli stage (and justifiably so ), his enunciation has become more careless. He is sometimes difficult to understand, as though he is no longer investing the effort in enunciating properly. This is a pity, because I am convinced that in Russian he pays more attention to the enunciation of the text.

There is one more thing these two productions have in common: Both are different from the kinds of plays that are typically performed in their respective theaters. Each is ambitious in its own way, reflecting the honest and good intentions of their makers. Each of them has virtues and flaws. In a certain sense, these are two productions that are neither "good" nor "bad." They are part of the right kind of approach, one that showcases many different kinds of plays.

An audience that follows a discussion of Spinoza's philosophy is certainly preferable to an audience that is amused by a worthless comedic plot. Certainly an encounter with Moliere, even if in an adaptation, is preferable to yet another original play that tries to hold a mirror up to the audience. In this sense, when I review a production briefly and have to pass judgment on it, I do it an injustice. Life, onstage as well as off, is more complex than "good" and "bad."

'New Jerualem,' which premiered at the Khan Theater last week. Not enough emotion.Credit: Yael Ilan
A scene from Don Juan,' at the Gesher Theater. The title character distributes his calling card to women in the audience.

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