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Play wins contest with touch of the surreal

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In the new play Estelle Singerman, by David Rush, a woman seeking somebody to recite Kaddish for her after she dies seeks advice from an odd assortment of spiritually tuned friends, including a homeless tarot card reader, a Buddhist giraffe with an Indian accent, and the ghost of a murdered rabbi haunting a small Chicago shtiebl. Look out for the unicorn at the end that takes one of the characters to her death.

The play landed in the top 10 of the 2013 Jewish Plays Project. On March 9, an audience of about 60 watched staged readings of three of these finalists at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange. Estelle Singerman was chosen as the evening’s winner. (Two additional readings featuring other plays from the top 10 will be held in Connecticut and Manhattan.)

“I knew I had a good chance — the play has won other awards in the past — so I was surprised but not overwhelmed,” said Rush, a seasoned playwright and professor emeritus of playwriting at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, as well as a playwright at Chicago’s Stage Left Theatre.

This year’s competition drew 167 plays from 26 states and eight countries and focused on a wider variety of subjects than did last year’s entrants, including gender politics and social justice, according to JPP founder and director David Winitsky of Maplewood, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

“We really believe that the quality of the plays submitted has gone way up, as has the variety of topics covered,” he said. “This year’s top 10 plays focus on the spiritual and ethical dimensions of Jewish life — how we live the values we study.”

The project is sponsored by the JCC MetroWest, the Jewish Plays Project, LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, and the Louis T. Roth Foundation. The JPP is also supported by PresenTense, an organization that seeks to foster innovation in the Jewish world through fellowships, seminars, and networks.

The winning plays (from the Cooperman JCC reading and the two subsequent readings) will be developed in the spring of 2013 by a company of actors, directors, and designers and become part of JPP’s second open residency in Manhattan in June.

At the end of June, one play will be announced as the final winner, and the JPP will work to see that play produced as soon as possible.

The other two finalists at the JCC were Leon’s Dictionary by Stephanie Satie, about a family living in the former Soviet Union and their conflicts over emigration, and A Jew from East Jesus by Jim Shankman, a send-up of Frank Capra-style screwball comedies about a Manhattan without Jews.

“The contest format adds a dramatic touch to the evening, but it also gets people really thinking deeply about the plays: Why did I like this play more than the other? What is most important in these plays?” Winitsky said after the evening of readings.

In a phone interview, Rush told NJJN that he first got the idea for the final image of his winning play while driving around Chicago.

“In a particular spot, I had this vision of a woman riding a unicorn to her death,” he said. “And that image stayed with me until I found the vehicle for it.” It took 15 years, until after his mother died, he said, before bringing the vision to fruition, calling his work about dying and aging “an homage to my mother and her indefatigable spirit.”

Rush said he did not make the trip to New Jersey from his hometown in Murphysboro, Ill., but said he might come in for the performances scheduled in June.

Of this year’s playwrights, only Shankman sat among Saturday night’s audience members.

Although he did not grab first place, he was heartened by the contest results.

“Community readers came up to me and told me how much they liked the play,” said Shankman. “I don’t think I have ever had a better response from a group of people in the professional theater,” he said. “I have been genuinely concerned that the play would be too irreverent for Jewish people, but clearly it is not. So I am going to think about what I want to do next with the play now.”

Winitsky responded, “This is exactly what we hope for: real connection between writers and audience.”

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