Broadcast text reviews of: Sea Sick and New Jerusalem

by Lynn on March 22, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast on Friday, March 20, 2014. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM; Sea Sick at the Theatre Centre until March 23, and New Jerusalem at the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, until April 13.

The host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our Theatre Critic and Passionate Playgoer. Hello again Lynn. What do you have for us this week?


Two fascinating plays. One is Sea Sick by Alanna Mitchell which opened the newly renovated Theatre Centre. It’s about the deteriorating health of the global oceans.

And the next play is New Jerusalem by David Ives, produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre playing at the Studio Theatre, of the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York. It’s about the excommunication of Jewish Philosopher Baruch de Spinoza from his Jewish congregation in Amsterdam in 1656.


Let’s start with Sea Sick. How do you make the deterioration of the oceans into a play?


Well you may ask. But first some background of the writer, Alanna Mitchell. Mitchell has always been curious. She comes by it honestly. Her father was a scientist. Her mother was an artist. Mitchell grew up in the prairies. While she has a degree in Latin (!) she has made her living as a science journalist for the Globe and Mail. But she got the biggest story of her career when she quit the Globe and began investigating how the global ocean is changing and why it matters. She wrote a book about it entitled: “Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.” She has adapted it for the stage and the result is Sea Sick

Actually I think Sea Sick is more accurately a TED lecture than a play. In a play, even in a one person play, the story would reveal different stories or characters in opposition; two or more protagonists want the same thing for different reasons and so tension results. That’s not what’s happening in Sea Sick. Here Mitchell reports that the global ocean is in crisis, dying if you will, and if it goes we all do. She notes that everything on land can be destroyed but the oceans will not be affected. But if it is the reverse—that all life dies in the ocean then we are doomed. The air will be compromised; our food; ecosystems, everything. No opposition from anyone in the theatre, and she takes the rest of the time to prove her case.


It sounds like it could be a dry fact filled evening. Is it?


Far from it. She is a charming story-teller. She tells stories of her family full of affection, love and respect.

As a kid her father took her out on expeditions across the prairie, told her the name of the plants both their Latin and ‘familiar’ names. Her mother painted them.

She says that science gives us the knowledge, but art gives that knowledge meaning. She uses a wonderful example. She plays three notes of music explaining how the sound is made and how many decibels in each note are played per second.

On their own those notes mean nothing. But in the hands and musical mind of Bob Dylan he takes those notes and writes “The Times, They Are A Changin’, one of the most prescient, perceptive songs of warning of our times.

Mitchell came to her calling, to bring attention to the subject of the ocean in crisis, by mistake. She was devoted to Darwin and his theories and wanted to go to the various lands/islands where his experiments took place. But then she met Silvia Earl, a leading authority on the ocean, on one of her trips, who told her the real story was the ocean and its crisis. Ever curious, Mitchell changed her focus. It’s interesting that most of the experts she met along her journey are women.

In clear language, a tempered delivery and many funny observations and self-deprecating remarks, she tells her story without haranguing desperation. The facts and information are sobering if not frightening. The ocean is warming up. This impacts various life forms that need colder water to live. The water is becoming more acid—like vinegar. This impacts the shells of many species.

See her experiment with a piece of chalk dropped in a beaker of vinegar for the full effect. And the ocean is loosing its breath (Oxygen).  But Mitchell informs her audience in a way that is not alarmist—a neat feat but is still sobering.


How is it as a production?


The stage is bare except for a blackboard, a table and a glass of water and beaker of vinegar. Mitchell stands and talks to us. It’s directed by Franco Boni with help from Ravi Jain. Boni directs the piece with subtlety and spareness. There is nothing fussy in the delivery or his staging of Mitchell.

The ‘lecture-play’ begins in full light (Rebecca Picherack) but then gradually dims so that the audience is in darkness and the stage is lit. At various times the lights will go up on the audience to make a point. Effective, that.

Lecture? Play? No matter, Sea Sick is a huge story that affects us all. It’s important to hear it, especially from such a quietly passionate, gifted story-teller like Alanna Mitchell.


And now to New Jerusalem about Spinoza.


The play New Jerusalem is subtitled: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.

Again some background. Many Jews in Amsterdam had fled there from Portugal to escape persecution. They could live anywhere in the city but there were restrictions. They could discuss their religion amongst themselves but not to a Christian. And this is where Baruch de Spinoza got into trouble.


How so?


He was a devoted Jew. He studied with his rabbi, Rabbi Mortera. He was Mortera’s most gifted student. But Spinoza was a philosopher who questioned the existence of God and came to startling conclusions about God, faith, belief and Judaism. He spoke about it freely which got the attention of Abraham Van Valkenburgh, a powerful authority in the city.

While Spinoza was responsible for his own thinking and actions, Van Valkenburgh wanted the congregation to put a stop to his proselytizing. He didn’t like Spinoza’s questions about religion; or that he reasoned there was only one inclusive God. The implication was clear—if the congregation didn’t do it, then Van Valkenburgh would and it would affect all Jews in the city—he’d expel them. So Spinoza’s thinking regarding God etc. is put on trial and Spinoza’s chief interrogator is the Rabbi.

The writing by playwright David Ives is terrific, bracing, intellectual, clear, and deeply thought. There are no transcripts from the actual event so this imagined dialogue and the arguments on both sides, are dazzling. And that’s a problem with the play.


How can well thought out arguments be a problem?


Because Spinoza is so clear thinking and persuasive, he should have won the ‘case’, and we know he doesn’t. He was excommunicated and he was just 23. It all seems to have come down to his girlfriend, Clara, a Catholic.

They loved each other. They talked about religion etc. She knew that to marry he would have to become a Catholic and he would never do it. When she pleads with him in the synagogue to recant and he refuses, she says in a rage, to drive him out of the city.

And in a thrice Van Valkenburgh decrees that Spinoza is to be excommunicated. The Rabbi concurs and the decree read—and it’s  brutal…he is to be forced out of town; no one should talk to him or give him shelter. It’s on record.


Dramatic stuff. How does the production do to illuminate this material.


It’s directed by Mitchell Cushman, one of the most impressive young directors in our theatre. He starts the production in the lobby, with various members of the cast in character reading from the bible or selling apricots or giving out candles. It sets the mood. Then into the theatre where the audience is the congregation that has to pass judgement.

The set seems like a makeshift synagogue but with symbolism—I’m not sure what it was symbolic of? The coming of the Holocaust? Anne Frank’s house?

Cushman then negotiates his actors  to establish relationships and create tension. It’s an uneven cast but in the three leads there is strength.

As Spinoza, Aris Athanasopoulos is boyish, almost laid back but certainly committed to his beliefs. As Van Valkenburgh, Michael Hanrahan has that fastidious look; confident, prickly and smooth at the same time.

And as Rabbi Mortera, Alon Nashman is a force of nature. Open-hearted but a scrapper; respectful and loving of his student, but knows the difficulty he is in—the moral dilemma—save your people or save your student. He creates a character who has lived and studies with God for decades. It’s a shining performance in a fascinating production.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @slotkinletter.

Sea Sick plays at the Theatre Centre until March 23

Box Office: 416-538-0988

New Jerusalem plays at the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts until April 13.



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