For its opening play of the new season, the Lantern Theater Company presents a Philadelphia premiere. The title is lengthy but very specific: New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.
This title refers to an actual event — the interrogation of philosopher Spinoza by his own Jewish community after he is accused of atheism for his radical ideas.
“It’s a play about big ideas,” says David Bardeen of Fox Chase, who has a leading role as the chief rabbi of Amsterdam. “Is there a God? How do we comprehend God? If there’s not a God, then how do we have a moral compass?”
Profound questions like these might seem unlikely material for a staged drama. But New Jerusalem is far from a dry philosophical debate.
“It’s full of passion and intensity,” says Bardeen.
New Jerusalem opened earlier this month and was scheduled to close on Oct. 30, but because of exceptionally high demand — with sold-out performances even before the official opening — the play’s run has been extended through Nov. 6.
When New Jerusalem opens, Spinoza, then 23, is a revolutionary thinker whose ideas are considered dangerous, and thus he threatens the security of the small Jewish community living in Amsterdam as outsiders who fled the Inquisition in Portugal.
The rabbi, prodded by Dutch authorities, must challenge Spinoza about his ideas. He is caught in a painful conflict.
“The rabbi has known Spinoza since he was born and he was the star pupil,” explains Bardeen. “But he’s been breaking the rules established by the Dutch government, and now it’s the rabbi’s job to try to bring him back to the fold.”
The end of the first act sets up the confrontation for Act 2.
“Spinoza challenges his rabbi to a showdown of ideas,” says Bardeen. “He’s saying, ‘These are my beliefs; let’s argue about them.’”
The interrogation itself takes place in Act 2. There is no actual transcript of the event that took place 355 years ago. Instead, it’s playwright David Ives’ imagining of what was said.
Dramatic and intense, the interrogation involves an almost breathless exchange of ideas. Spinoza’s ideas, while profound, come quickly, and he is portrayed as almost thinking aloud. The audience gets to see the mind of a young thinker who would become one of the great philosophers.
The rabbi tries to challenge him, but Spinoza holds firm. As the rabbi gets increasingly upset, he shouts and even thunders at Spinoza as he conveys his frustration with his rebellious former student.
“Vocally, it’s really challenging,” admits Bardeen. “It’s very intense, with many competing ideas, and no time to rest.”
The setting for the interrogation is the sanctuary of the synagogue, a courtroom of sorts. The audience is seated on three sides of the stage, just steps away from the actors. “It’s set up so the audience members are members of the congregation,” says Bardeen. “They are witnesses to this trial.”
That makes Bardeen’s role even more challenging.
Whenever he speaks, he’s presumably addressing the entire congregation. So he often looks directly at the audience. Or he stares intently at the actor who plays Spinoza, Sam Henderson. In one key scene, Bardeen is almost operatic in his intensity.
He was drawn to the play as soon as he read the script.
“It was a fantastic read,” he says.
To prepare for the role, he did research about the Jews of Amsterdam in 1656, about Spinoza’s ideas, and about the chief rabbi.
Of course, Bardeen also studied the script, learning his lines in advance of rehearsals. Then, during rehearsals, the script came alive vividly.
“When everyone got their rhythm and timing, it came to life. It just crackled,” says Bardeen. “It kept going like a house on fire.”
Although he’s not Jewish and has never played a rabbi before, on the stage Bardeen looks the part of a traditional rabbi. He has a full beard, which he started growing in July. And he wears a long black velvet robe and a black skullcap.
“The robe is very heavy and cumbersome, but physically it gives me a lot of weight and it ages me,” says the actor, who just turned 40 but is playing the role of a rabbi who was in his 60s. He’s also wearing glasses for the first time; and this, too, helps with the overall image.
During each performance, the Northeast actor is transformed into Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera, not only by his appearance but also by his acting skill. He was praised for his “passionate performance” by Philadelphia Inquirer theater critic Toby Zinman.
This is his second role in a Lantern Theater production. The first was 15 years ago when he played Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
“I loved that experience,” he says. “It opened a lot of doors for me.”
Then he went on to perform on many area stages and earned a Barrymore Award for best supporting actor in an InterAct Theatre production.
The versatile actor has also had TV and film roles. After earning his master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, he lived in Los Angeles for five years before moving back to Philadelphia.
New Jerusalem is the third show he’s done since relocating here. He’s delighted to return to the Lantern after 15 years. “It feels great,” he says. “The Lantern is one of those theaters where actors can explore and experiment with their own interpretations.”
He’s also pleased to be working with director Charles McMahon.
“He’s one of the smartest directors I’ve ever met,” says Bardeen.
His role as Rabbi Mortera is a demanding one. But it’s also a very satisfying experience. “This is a play in which the stakes are so high,” says Bardeen. “And the audience is drawn into it because they’re sharing the theatrical experience of the trial.” ••
“New Jerusalem,” at the Lantern Theater (10th and Ludlow streets), continues through Nov. 6. For tickets ($20 to $36), call 215-829-0395 or visit the theater’s Web site, www.lanterntheater.org