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THE AMERICAN JEWISH WORLD: Shylock returns to visit his daughter

Six Points Theater presents the world premiere of Martin Coren’s 'The Moneylender’s Daughter'



March 6, 2024


By DORIS RUBENSTEIN


In the early part of the 20th century, my dad grew up in a small coal mining town in southwest Pennsylvania. There was a Jewish community there — still is! — but Jews were a real minority. I remember my dad telling me how he’d gotten kicked out of high school over a production of The Merchant of Venice.


Of course, he’d been cast as Shylock. There’s a line in the play where one of the characters proclaims, “I hate him because he is a Jew.” Evidently, the tone of voice used by that teenage actor during rehearsal was such that my dad knew the kid wasn’t acting; so, he hauled off and punched the guy in the jaw, knocking him out. While there were worlds of distance in time and place between Shakespeare’s penning of those words in England and my dad’s truncated thespian career in McKeesport, the poison of antisemitism still flowed.

Shana Eisenberg plays Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, in her Six Points Theater debut.


Shana Eisenberg (Courtesy of Six Points Theater)


Martin Coren’s new play, The Moneylender’s Daughter, is sort of The Merchant of Venice II. Since Shakespeare didn’t get around to writing a sequel, Coren has set himself to the task. Six Points Theater describes the play’s story as a visit between the banished Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, who is now in a Christian marriage. Their reunion sets them on a journey of personal discovery and identity.


This reporter has wondered about just such a reunion for years; Shylock was forced into conversion, but Jessica made the switch not out of true faith, but to escape the restrictions placed on her as a Jew by the laws of Venice. How sincere was this conversion in her heart of hearts?


Playwright Coren is a Philadelphia native (a Bar Mitzva at Temple Beth Ahm), with an MFA degree from Columbia University. He lived for two years in Israel before settling in Brooklyn to teach high school. Those two years in Israel were both productive and successful: His play Brothers (performed in both English and Hebrew) premiered at the Israel Fringe Festival and won “Best of the Fringe 1988.”


His play Faces won a prize at the 1989 Tel Aviv Festival of English Language Plays. The Moneylender’s Daughter (under a different title) won first prize at the New Play Festival at the Jewish Ensemble Theater in Detroit in 2017.


What inspired Coren to write this play?


“I wanted to respond to the sadness I felt toward Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock, but I wanted to balance it with my feelings of love for the rest of his works,” he explained. “I wanted to understand Shylock more and to humanize Jessica. Her feelings toward her father must be more complex than what appears in the play in Shakespeare. I wanted Shylock and Jessica to find their ways back to each other.”


It takes two strong actors to pull off credible representations of these well-known characters. It was up to director J.C. Cutler to choose them.


Finding Shylock was easy. Robert Dorfman has played Shylock numerous times, including at the Guthrie Theater (2007), and he has a long and deep association with Six Points. He was the natural choice.


Shana Eisenberg stood out from many who auditioned for Jessica. She’s never performed Shakespeare, despite having a long résumé in local theater. She’s appeared at Stages, the Old Log, and Artistry; she is widely known in the Jewish community for her musical programming for children at synagogues and the JCC. The Duluth native celebrated her Bat Mitzva at Temple Israel there.


It’s a long trip emotionally from musical theater at the Old Log to Shakespearean-type drama, and this is Eisenberg’s first foray into the world of the Bard. In fact, she’s never seen The Merchant of Venice in a live production, although she has read the play and saw the movie version starring Al Pacino.


Is Jessica her favorite Shakespearean female character, then? Eisenberg admitted, “Actually, Ophelia in Hamlet is probably number one. She stands out! I like watching other women ‘swim’ in that role.”


What about Jessica, then? Eisenberg replied, “I love how she goes into everything with full emotion. She can go from being even and calm into hysterical in just moments. Following the journey she makes between those emotions has been a really neat experience. I can relate to her in that she has a love and respect for her home and family life and a great love for her father, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.”


In contrast to Eisenberg, J.C. Cutler has performed many of Shakespeare’s plays over his long career, but he’s never done Merchant. Fans of Cutler may also be surprised to learn that this is his first attempt at directing. He credited Six Points founding artistic director Barbara Brooks with handing him the baton. “She has a wonderful way of encouraging and supporting … After 40 years of being directed, I’ve got a good idea of how I’d like to do it.”

***

The Moneylender’s Daughter runs through March 17 at Six Points Theater in the Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For tickets, go to: sixpointstheater.org or call 651-647-4315.

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