David Winitsky is a theater artist with a mission. In an era in which most of the Jewish repertory companies in New York have folded for lack of support, he views theater written by and for Jews as still essential to the revitalization of the Jewish community. His brainchild, the Jewish Plays Project, reaches a major milestone this weekend as it stages five different new works, resulting from a year-long process of artistic development and community building. One of the works, Zohar Tirosh-Polk’s, “Six,” a contemporary re-engagement with Israel’s Six-Day War, will be read in its entirety. Four others, “Salt of the Earth,” “The Golems of Gotham,” “Klauzal Square” and “Mahalla,” will be performed as fully staged 30-minute extracts. The festival kicks off on Saturday night at the 14th Street Y in the East Village.
As he told The Jewish Week last fall, Winitsky aims to spur the creation of new plays about contemporary Jewish experience, have the playwrights compete with each other, involve the Jewish community in the selection process, and then give the winning artists the mentoring and support that they need in order to put their work in front of an audience.
“Six,” along with two other finalists, was chosen from 175 submissions to a playwriting contest sponsored by the MetroWest JCC in West Orange, N.J. (The audience chose the winning play from the final three by responding with text message “votes.”) Three other plays, “The Golems of Gotham,” “Klauzal Square,” and “Mahalla,” were selected by two panels of New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s: a panel of theater practitioners ranked more than two dozen plays based on artistic merit while a separate, concurrent panel of active Jewish community members singled out those plays that resonated most powerfully with contemporary Jewish priorities and concerns. And the final play, “Salt of the Earth,” which employs a mix of puppetry and videography, was developed by LABA: The National Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the Y.
Directed by Ian Morgan of the New Group, “Six” explores the legacy of the Six-Day War through the eyes of an Israeli woman and her American boyfriend who are taking a six-day trip to Jerusalem to visit her parents. Tirosh-Polk, who was born in Brazil to Israeli parents, is best known for her one-woman drama, “Pieces,” about her time in the Israel Defense Force during the era of the Rabin assassination.
By contrast, the playwright remarked in an interview, “Six” is more light-hearted; she called it an “immersive comedy” that seeks to inspire audiences to investigate the “beauty, allure, and complexity of Israel today.”
The other four plays also incorporate sweeping issues of Jewish identity. “The Golems of Gotham,” based on the 2002 novel of the same title by Thane Rosenbaum, has been reconceived by co-creators Fran Sperling and Sherry Teitelbaum as a circus-style spectacle. Sarah Gancher’s “Klauzal Square” centers on a Hungarian Jewish girl who enlists the aid of a ghost in order to combat bullying by her peers. In “Mahalla,” created by anthropologist Melissa Moschitto and a team of social scientists who interviewed participants in last year’s Egyptian Revolution, the Passover seder is used as a lens to reinterpret modern Egyptian history-in-the-making. Finally, in “Salt of the Earth,” Israeli-born actor and director Zvi Sahar presents “live-action puppet cinema,” in which the audience follows the intricate movements of the puppeteers as they manipulate miniature puppets; the audience also watches the resulting live action film as it is being created.
One of the most innovative pieces is the adaptation of “The Golems of Gotham.” In the novel, a teenage girl in an Upper West Side brownstone delves into the Kabbalah in order to bring her grandparents back to life. Along with her grandparents, however, Ariel inadvertently conjures the spirits of famous writers who survived the Holocaust only to commit suicide in later life.
In Sperling and Teitelbaum’s startling production, Ariel becomes an aerialist, and the klezmer music that is described in the book comes to life through new music by klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, who will be performing live in the production. Sperling, the child of Holocaust survivors who trained as a burlesque dancer before becoming an acrobat, said that when she read the book, she “exploded with visual ideas about how I would interpret the story.” As exciting as the current production is, she confessed that she “keeps wanting to go to a bigger world; I’d like to build the brownstone out of fabric so that it looks like a bandage covering a big wound.”
Winitsky, who has worked in the past with Amichai Lau-Lavie of Storahtelling (known for its theatrical reinterpretations of synagogue Torah readings), noted last week that one goal of the Jewish Plays Project is to “bring a young, Jewish, creative artistic community into the structural parts of the Jewish world, such as the JCCs and synagogues, in a way that they haven’t been.”
But beyond the question of where these works may ultimately be produced is the simple fact that they are fulfilling a huge unmet need. The contest, Winitsky declared, is a runaway success: “It has generated a ton of new ideas about what Jewish plays can be. And it has shown us that there are lots of people who want to make Jewish theater — and lots of people who want to see it.”
“Six” will be performed for free in its entirety on Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m., Sunday, June 24 at 3 p.m. and Monday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St. Half-hour selections from the other four shows will form a single evening of theater to be performed on Thursday, June 28 at 8 p.m., Saturday June 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets for these shows are $18 and can be purchased at www.labajournal.com or www.jewishplaysproject.org.