Tuesday, March 5, 2024

"The Moneylender's Daughter" at Six Points Theater

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice can be problematic, with its ant-Semitic representation of the greedy Jewish moneylender, yet it also contains the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes... if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech that argues for a shared humanity. In a post-show discussion, Six Points Theater's Artistic Director Barbara Brooks noted that she's interested in depicting the character of Shylock onstage, and how it might be different at a theater that specializes in telling Jewish stories. But since their home stage at Highland Park Community Center is small, they can't really do a large-scale Shakespeare play, so instead they're presenting the world premiere of Brooklyn-based playwright Martin Coren's sequel The Moneylender's Daughter. I've only seen The Merchant of Venice once, pre-blog in 2007 (more on that later), so I'm not that familiar with it and pretty much viewed this as a standalone play. If you do have familiarity with the original it might have a deeper meaning, but I still found it to be a fascinating and moving play dealing with issues of identity, family, and the anti-Semitism that unfortunately is still very much a part of our world.

The Moneylender's Daughter takes place about a year after the end of The Merchant of Venice and follows five characters from that play. Even if you don't know Merchant, Daughter explains fairly quickly who these people are and what situation we're in. Shylock's daughter Jessica has converted to Christianity and married the Christian Lorenzo, a successful businessman. Shylock's former servant Launcelot now works for Jessica. They're seemingly happy (although there are a few underlying issues in the marriage around Jessica's uncertainty about having children), when Shylock appears at their door, having lost all of his money and friends. Jessica reluctantly agrees to let him stay with them, and convinces her husband by saying she'll teach him about Christianity and they'll look like heroes. But of course, things don't go smoothly. Shylock balks at the instruction, and Jessica finds herself being drawn to her history and culture which she's rejected. Complicating matters is the fact that Antonio, from whom Shylock famously demanded "a pound of flesh" when he couldn't repay his debt, is now the Duke of Venice, in a position of power over them all. And if Shylock and Jessica don't hold to their promise to be "good Christians," the consequences will be dire.

Shana Eisenberg and Robert Dorfman
(photo by Sarah Whiting)
JC Cutler directs the strong five-person cast, with Robert Dorfman reprising his role of Shylock, which he played in the aforementioned 2007 production of The Merchant of Venice at the Guthrie. As always, he brings such depth to the role, as well as a touch of humor. Unfortunately I don't recall that production from 17 years ago, and I'm sure Robert brought humanity to that role too, but I think this play allows for a deeper exploration of the character and a fuller humanity expressed. This Shylock is more sympathetic; he did what he did because it was the only option open to him to take care of his family. Shana Eisenberg, in her debut with Six Points, goes toe to toe with Robert as Jessica, and also portrays a convincingly complex and conflicted human, who gets a chance of redemption after her complete rejection of her faith and family in Merchant. Rounding out the cast are Neal Skoy, clowning it up as Launcelot and then becoming something a little more sinister; Paul LaNave in the not entirely sympathetic role of Jessica's husband; and Tony Larkin as the Duke Antonio, whose newfound empathy only extends so far.

The small stage has been transformed into an ornate Venice mansion on the Grand Canal through Rick Polenek's scenic and properties design. The walls are hung with tapestries, heavy wooden doors bookend the space, and a small cell is hidden behind a curtain and elevated by a few stairs, creating a sense of distance from the rest of the house. A sturdy wooden table is moved around and used as a kitchen or dining room table, or desk for studying. The characters are dressed in elaborate Renaissance era garments, full skirted dresses for Jessica and tunics for the men, both of embroidered fabrics (costume design by A. Emily Heaney).

If you're a student or fan of Shakespeare, you'll definitely want to check this out to see an extension of one of his well known plays, that perhaps rights some of the wrongs of the original, allowing the characters to be seen as more than just stereotypes. And even if you're not, The Moneylender's Daughter is a powerful and relevant play, using these characters from the past to comment on our present. It's exciting that we're getting to see it first. The playwright was in town for a talk-back on opening weekend, and he talked about how he collaborated with this cast, director, and others at Six Points to further develop and finalize the play.

The Moneylender's Daughter continues through March 17 at the Highland Park Community Center. For more information and a peek into the show, watch this video of the actors talking about their characters and the play: