A profound experience

For Fox Chase act­or Dav­id Bardeen, his role in a play about clash­ing re­li­gious ideo­lo­gies de­mands a lot of in­tens­ity.

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

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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