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A CurtainUp Review
The Punishing Blow
As it turns out, it is not a punishment for us, but a rather entertaining and enlightening dramatic discourse on the life and times of Daniel Mendoza, a Sephardic Jew who rose to prominence as a pugilist in England during the 18th century. It is also punctuated and framed by the amusingly self-important professor's issues with his wife, his drinking and his assurances that he is not anti-Semitic.
Aside from the obligatory lectern, a screen for projecting slides, an easel on which Leslie writes a few pertinent facts and figures, a folding table with a few books for referral, there is also a piano on which Leslie plays a few bars of an 18th century ditty. Duerr has a neatly trimmed Van Gogh beard and wears a spiffy-looking sport coat and tie. It is a smart look that suits a professor who wants to make a good impression. More importantly, one gets the impression that we are in the presence of someone who not only knows how to lecture but also how to keep his listeners tuned in and turned on. What a treat it is to hear him begin and expound upon a factual story that was certainly unfamiliar to me.
Even if The Punishing Blow is not a play in the conventional sense, it also moves more or less conventionally along its chronological path. This is not to say that there are no surprises in store for us as Leslie connects the dots between Mendoza's personal ups and downs and the social and political climate in 18th century England. Mendoza, who was born into poverty in London in 1764 and rose to fame as the "Lion of Israel," was not a big man. He was a bantam weight who quickly learned how to stand up against the Christians who reviled, tormented, and physically abused the Jews.
In this era of bare knuckle fighting, Mendoza, at the age of 16, teams up with a Christian boxer Richard Humphries, who not only champions him but becomes his mentor and close friend. While the professor insinuates more of the relationship between "Danny and Dickie" than he can substantiate, he more significantly gives us a picture of an era in which men relished the abuse and torture of animals, such as dog and cock fights. Until Mendoza would become known for his more fleet-footed quot;scientific" approach to fighting, the prevailing method was to stand firm and pound your opponent until he fell to the ground. There were no official rounds with a time for rest and a fight could go continuously for hours.
Mendoza's career was glorious but short-lived. His marriage to the beautiful Esther, whom he met at a Purim party (where else?) would result in eleven children. Before he died in 1836, he became the first Jew to ever converse with an English monarch — George III. Somehow these facts and figures all add up to a knock-out for us and for the lecturer who is also having a bit of a burn-out because of his wife's infidelity?
Leslie's anxiety-sprinkled lecture is not a static event as he is in a constant state of demonstrative activity that gets a rest only at those times when he is showing us slides of some revelatory drawings and paintings of the period. Considering what little suspense there is in Cohen's otherwise neatly structured, informed text, there is hardly a moment that I wasn't in its thrall. Perhaps Duerr, who starred in the world premiere of this play two years ago and the subsequent NYC premiere in 2009, can take credit for giving us a really interesting persona that is more than merely professorial and certainly more than a conciliatory anti-Semite. He is also the founder/artistic director of the York Shakespeare Company and in this instance serves as his own director.