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BWW Reviews: NEW JERUSALEM at GableStage

So you're a young Jewish man belonging to a synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656 and you are allowed to live in peace only because your Rabbi has negotiated a pact that says in part that you will never discuss religion with the Christian Dutch who are your hosts. The Rabbi is your mentor; you will replace him when he dies. But you are an addict of the Big What If. You have questions. About God. About nature. About Judaism. About faith based ideology. And then you are called before the Talmud Torah Congregation to explain yourself.

This story of the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza is now on stage at Joe Adlers' GableStage. Written by David Ives, this brilliant production takes what could have been a dry, eternal argument and pops it into today. The audience becomes the congregation as Spinoza is charged with atheism, heresy and discussing religion with Christians.

Abdiel Vivancos brings charm, wit and fervor to Spinoza as he tries to reason with his accuser and those who threaten excommunication. Stephen G. Anthony as Abraham van Valkenburgh, in essence prosecuting for the Christian burghers, is the strongly grounded voice of authority; Larry Bramble, as Saul Levi Mortera, the Chief Rabbi, hesitant at first as he struggles to express his love for the young Spinoza, ultimately finds strength in his beliefs and becomes the towering and vengeful leader. Gregg Weiner as Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel, the trustee of Talmud Torah, is the quiet presence who finally erupts as he clarifies the traditional Jewish position.

The always intense Natalia Coego plays Rebekah de Spinoza, the raging half sister who demands her share of the money left to Spinoza by their father. Although zealously Jewish she listens to and understands Spinoza's arguments and ultimately comes to his defense.

Spinoza's room mate, Simon de Vries, played by Javier del Riego, is the reluctant spy reporting to his uncle van Valkenburgh but who finally pleads for his friend. Hannah Benitez is Clara van den Enden, a Christian girl in love with Spinoza who testifies against him. Both do well in their roles.

Joe Adler's direction is superb, bringing the dynamics of a courtroom drama to the wittily engrossing Ives' script in which everyone, ultimately, is on trial.

The usual excellent production values of GableStage prevail here, with set by Lyle Baskin, sound by Matt Corey, Ellis Tillman's costumes and lighting by Steve Welsh whose beautiful final scene resembles a Reuben's painting.

NEW Jerusalem plays at GablesStage at the Biltmore through April 26, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables. 305-445-1119. http://www.gablestage.org


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