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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Thoughtful stage drama opens to the book on Spinoza’s philosophy

Tags: Arts

It’s been more than 350 years since the freethinking Jewish rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, an event that’s the focus of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s current production, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation, Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.

The play, written by David Ives and directed by Mitchell Cushman, opens with a 20-minute prologue in the theatre lobby, then moves inside the theatre, which represents the interior of Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Synagogue; patrons are offered yarmulkes and lace head coverings as they enter. The excellent cast includes Aris Athanasopolous and Alon Nashman, who are outstanding as Spinoza and the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, respectively.

Spinoza’s metaphysical ideas were deemed so heretical and dangerous by both the Christian and Jewish communities that they colluded in stifling him. This highly intellectualized and riveting courtroom-style drama opens the book on Spinoza’s philosophical ideas, which seem so innocent today, but which could only threaten the worldview of any society predating modern notions of freedom of religion.

New Jerusalem continues at the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, through April 13.

There are notable Canadian connections to the film Labor Day, which recently opened in movie theatres. The film was directed by Jason Reitman, a second-generation film director and the son of director Ivan Reitman. It’s based on the novel Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, a 60-year-old American novelist and nonfiction writer who is perhaps most famous for her relationship with reclusive literary legend J.D. Salinger when she was 18 years old.

An article Maynard had written for the New York Times Magazine caught Salinger’s eye, and the two exchanged 25 letters, then lived together for 10 months in his home in rural New Hampshire in 1973. Maynard rarely discussed the relationship publicly until she wrote about it in her 1998 memoir At Home in the World.

Maynard comes from a distinguished literary family. She was one of two daughters of Max and Fredelle (Bruser) Maynard. Her mother, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, wrote about her Saskatchewan upbringing in a bestselling memoir, Raisins and Almonds. She also penned a second memoir, The Tree of Life. Fredelle Maynard was a prolific writer of magazine articles for many top-notch publications, including Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and Chatelaine.

Joyce’s sister, Rona Maynard, was a long-serving editor of Chatelaine. Rona and Joyce jointly produced another Maynard family memoir, My Mother’s Daughter, which appeared in 2007.

A California resident, Joyce Maynard has had considerable success as a novelist. Labor Day is not the first of her books to be made into a film. Her 1992 novel To Die For also made it to the big screen. Her most recent novel, After Her, came out in 2013. She’s the mother of three children, including American heartthrob actor Wilson Bethel, who has had leading roles in the television soap opera The Young and The Restless and other series.

Arts in Brief

Four screenings of The Lady in Number 6, Academy award-winning documentary about Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer, will feature a post-movie question-and-answer session with the producer and director. $10, tickets at the door. Miles Nadal JCC, Al Green Theatre, Sunday April 13, 12:30, 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Latin crossover artist Jose Feliciano appears in Toronto at a benefit concert for the Israel Guide Dog Center For the Blind. Toronto Centre for the Arts, George Weston Recital Hall, Thursday May 22, 7:30 p.m. $55, $70, $85; 855-985-2787, VIP tickets $180 include meet-and-greet dessert reception with Feliciano, and tax receipt. 416-577-3600,

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