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TALKIN' BROADWAY: The Moneylender's Daughter Six Points Theater Review by Arthur Dorman

Updated: Mar 15


March 7, 2024



A playwright who takes on the challenge of writing a sequel to one of William Shakespeare's plays must either have a great amount of self-confidence or no fear of failure. After all, how would one hope to write a play that will not pale in comparison? Whichever of those character traits Martin Coren possesses, his play The Moneylender's Daughter, a sequel to The Merchant of Venice, proves that the risk can be worth taking. The play opened last weekend in its world premiere at Six Points Theater, under the banner of Wellsprings, Six Points' play development program. It succeeds wonderfully as an extension of the Shakespeare work, while bringing up its own set of questions and provocations.


Robert Dorfman and Shana Eisenberg Photo by Sarah Whiting


In his sequel, Coren narrows the focus to two characters: Shylock, the titular merchant of Shakespeare's work, and his daughter Jessica. A quick recap of The Merchant of Venice may help set the stage for The Moneylender's Daughter. In Merchant, Shylock, a Jewish merchant and moneylender, is characterized by dreadful antisemitic tropes that were rampant in Shakespeare's time. Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, who is a Christian, thus causing Shylock profound emotional pain.


Later in the play, Shylock is denied the pound of flesh owed to him by the merchant Antonio, who was unable to repay a loan in strict accordance with its contract. Of course, to extract a pound of Antonio's flesh would have amounted to his murder. Shylock had been often abused by Antonio's antisemitic taunts, including publicly spitting on him, and is thus eager to exact revenge by way of this odious penalty for non-payment of the loan. Instead, Shylock is found guilty of plotting to murder a Venetian citizen and is stripped of his fortune.


In what is meant as an act of mercy, Antonia asks that the half of Shylock's fortune he was awarded by the court be returned to the moneylender on the condition that Shylock turn all of it over to Jessica and Lorenzo, and then to convert to Christianity. Shylock, feeling cornered, agrees to these terms.


The Moneylender's Daughter begins a year after the trial. Shylock was expelled from Venice for one year for egregious behavior during his forced conversion. Jessica and Lorenzo are living very comfortably in Venice, although the question of starting a family seems unsettled. Launcelot, a blatantly antisemitic hired man who once worked for Shylock, now works for Lorenzo and Jessica. Both Lorenzo and Launcelot equate being a Christian with being virtuous and express their joy that Jessica has become a "good Christian."


All three are therefore distressed when Shylock shows up at their door, having returned from his exile with nowhere to go. Though pained to see Jessica living as a Christian woman, he begs her to let him stay in her home. Jessica is persuaded and makes the case to Lorenzo that, after all, her father has converted and is now a Christian like them. Lorenzo is skeptical but Jessica manages to win her husband over.


Coren raises serious, thoughtful questions and has constructed a viable course of events for the play's characters, in particular in the way in which the father-daughter bond between Shylock and Jessica bends one way, then another. There are challenging conversations between Shylock and Jessica, and between Jessica and Lorenzo, regarding one's faith and how they view their connection to God. Jessica puts challenging questions to both her father and her husband, as when she asks Shylock, "What good are (Jewish) blessings if how you live contradicts them?" or wonders aloud, to Lorenzo, if we wouldn't be better off if people took care of their own affairs rather than waiting for God to intervene.


Other themes run through the play: the tension between justice and mercy, the wisdom of rule by enduring laws versus the judgment of temporal leaders, and the basic underpinnings of family and identity. It is a play of ideas and provocations, doled out in the context of a compelling story. Over the course of the play, we feel Jessica's growing schism between who she was, who she is, and who she will endeavor to be. Shana Eisenberg's sublime performance captures all of Jessica's nuance, containing pain, stiff resolution, uncertainty, and affection. In the end, as the title suggests, the play is Jessica's story, and Eisenberg carries us with her on the character's journey.


Robert Dorfman has played Shylock before, in a production of Merchant at the Guthrie. He was outstanding then and is once more. At times, his mannerisms can feel exaggerated, which at first brush may seem to suggest some truth in the historic tropes about Jews. This would be wrong-headed thinking. What emerges from Dorfman's performance is that mannerisms and vocalisms that may seem what we think of as "Jewish" (or any other cultural identifier) are no less than, nor more than, any other mannerisms and vocalisms; they are Shylock's birthright. Perpetrators of the tropes, on the other hand, would callously chain those behaviors to evidence of an inferior stock or, even worse, envoys of evil.


Paul LaNave gives another of his many impressive performances. As Lorenzo, he is convincing in his love for Jessica and his desire to build a life together, showing great tenderness and patience toward her. On the other hand, he has some cavalier attitudes, to which he appears oblivious, regarding some basic assumptions about their marriage, which LaNave portrays without making Lorenzo appear to be a bad man, but a man caught in his times. Tony Larkin plays Antonio, giving a solid performance that expresses the character's striving to be just and merciful, though hobbled by his pride in the superiority of the laws of Venice over all others.


Launcelot is presented as a fool both in Merchant and The Moneylender's Daughter, but in the latter, we see a dark energy beneath the fool's cheerful ineptitude become unleashed when those dangerous tropes are given the breath of life. Neal Skoy, who is a superb comic actor, delivers the fool's slapstick comedy early on with aplomb, then, over time, reveals a slithering beast capable of deceit and destruction in order to animate his hatred, all disguised as service to a higher power. Skoy's performance is, in turns, giddily entertaining and deeply chilling.


J.C. Cutler's direction of The Moneylender's Daughter maintains a compelling dramatic thrust throughout the play's two acts and has elegantly staged scene changes that allow for fluid transitions. The physical production is, in every regard, excellent. Rick Polenek has designed a beautiful set that makes optimal use of Six Points' quite small stage. A. Emily Heaney's costumes are aptly lush for the affluent characters, worn down but respectable for the hired man and tattered for Shylock, having lost all material assets. Attention to detail is telling here, such as the shiny, polished look of Lorenzo's knee-high leather boots in contrast to the hired man Launcelot's worn work shoes that are muddied around the soles. Paul Epton's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design, including atmospheric music of the era during transitions, are top-notch as well.


It has always been hard for me to remember that The Merchant of Venice is categorized as a comedy. Indeed, it contains a lot of comic business regarding the formation of romantic couplings and women disguised as men. The final scene is of happy altar-bound couples, and no one dies in the course of the play. Still, in Shylock's story it has a profoundly serious plot that, if it was ever viewed as comic, today is viewed as troubling and problematic.

Coren takes that troubling and problematic element and suggests how it might unspool as the characters, at least the two at the core of this story, push through the thorns in search of a solution, not knowing if one exists. Coren's play keeps us guessing, and also keeps us thinking, as well as feeling–all reasons we go to the theater. The Moneylender's Daughter is a great success and should be welcome on stages around the nation.


The Moneylender's Daughter runs through March 17, 2024, at Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-647-4315 or visit www.sixpointstheater.org.


Playwright: Martin Coren; Director: JC Cutler; Scenic and Properties Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Intimacy Director: Elizabeth Desotelle; Technical Director: Brady Whitcomb; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Manager: André Johnson Jr.


Cast: Robert Dorfman (Shylock), Shana Eisenberg (Jessica), Tony Larkin (Antonio), Paul LaNave (Lorenzo), Neal Skoy (Launcelot).

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