“I worry you think too much,” one character says to anther in Spinoza’s Ethics, the ambitious new play being presented in the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City. Written by Emily Claire Schmitt, this play fuses philosophy with humanity in an engaging, if sometimes confusing, story.
Spinoza’s Ethics, directed by Dianna Garten, introduces audiences to the Dutch enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza at the end of his life, when he is visited by his friend Ruth, a modern-day woman who arrives at his door wearing jeans, much to the distress of his proper landlord. The play then travels back in time, when Ruth is a young woman living at a convent and meets Spinoza in the garden. The two begin a debate on life, religion, God and happiness that continues throughout Ruth’s life. Audiences are invited into Ruth’s home and marriage, which ends unhappily, and her attempts to navigate life as a single woman striving to learn the meaning of her place on earth.
For Spinoza’s Ethics to demand the audience’s investment for its two-hour running time, the character of Ruth must inspire great sympathy, and, with Arielle Yoder playing her in an impressive performance, she does. Yoder depicts Ruth’s sincere devotion to her faith, as well as her devastation upon learning her husband is homosexual and her marriage must end. James Weeks is an impressive scene partner as Spinoza, engaging in rapid-fire, in-depth conversation with Ruth. Yvonne Roen is a formidale Mother Superior, and Dan Jaffe instills confusion and anger as Richard, Ruth’s husband who struggles with acknowledging his own sexuality, and Jim Dadosky is engaging in several supporting roles.
Each scene is punctuated with a quote from Spinoza’s works that relates to the events taking place. At times, the play is too reminiscent of a college lecture or classroom presentation, and the script could benefit from removing some scenes and investing more into the others. Spinoza and Ruth’s ability to time-travel is never explained, nor is the ability of Ruth’s peers to see and converse with Spinoza – or their lack of commentary on his old-fashioned frocks.
Staged simply, with Aley B. Carlevaro’s props establishing the time and place of each scene, and with lighting design by Alex deNevers, sound design by Lawrence Schober and costume design by Maria Myrtil, Spinoza’s Ethics moves swiftly through Ruth’s years, offering an abundance of information alongside the events. While the script spans many decades, the cast members’ moving performances cause the time to pass quickly.