By Quinn Rigg
As we sink into winter’s welcoming if unreasonably chilly embrace, many take time to reflect and remember what is warm and familiar. Through the celebration of the traditions we hold dear, we draw a link between past, present, and perpetual future; therein, the human race ensures the survival of itself and its cultures through each and every unforgiving winter. Strawdog Theatre Company intends to celebrate and educate upon such tradition with their playful Hanukkah romp, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.
A musical children’s show adapted by Michael Dailey, with music and lyrics by Jacob Combs, and based on a book of the same name by Eric Kimmel, Dailey and Combs adapt this tale to the stage with charm and flair — and an additional layer of narrative framing.
Strawdog’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins follows a roaming band of players called The Ovals of Ostropol, wheeling their caravan from town to town to spread their tales far and wide. Finding themselves in a foolish town that doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, the hungry and tired Ovals must tell the story of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” — which they make up on the spot in order to earn a place to rest and a meal to eat. Replete with circus tricks, tap dancing, puppetry and lively musicianship, their tale follows the titular Hershel of Ostropol, great-grandfather of their lead player, protecting the synagogue’s menorah from the conniving Hanukkah goblins for all eight days of the celebration through his biting wit and strength of character.
Doing justice to the Caldecott-winning original, director Hannah Todd encourages engagement with ensemble storytelling, inviting interaction from audience members young and old as the story unfolds. From rousing songs with interactive choreography, to collective Hanukkah blessings through each lighting of the menorah, Todd facilitates a lively and exciting air of camaraderie and care. The sense of communal play is palpable from the outset, extending through charming vaudevillian bits of slapstick, serenading, and surprise.
Incomplete without a sprawling soundscape, music director Ricky Harris manages a lot from very little, much in the spirit of the miracle of Hanukkah. With barebone orchestrations and the occasional incidental recorded music, Harris imbues the play with a simple and intimate joy within the thump of Amy Gorelow’s upright bass or Christopher Thomas Pow’s violin. The diegetic nature of music throughout this play is conducive to the synergy of the ensemble.
Morgan Lavenstein leads this ensemble as the titular Hershel, to great effect. Boisterous energy abounds through Lavenstein’s performance. Along with Rebecca Marowitz, Lakecia Harris, Elizabeth McAnulty Quilter, Amy Gorelow and Christopher Thomas Pow, this ensemble is irrepressibly playful and inviting. The clarity of their relationships and the electricity of their energy is endearing and dazzling.
Choreographed in delightful symphony by Amanda Crockett, dressed in traditional traveler’s garb by Gregory Graham, all on a set designed by Caitlin McLeod, (who, along with props designer Foiles created the many mischievous goblin puppets) communality is a central idea of both content and production within Strawdog’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. In the endeavor of sharing a story and revitalizing traditions, it truly takes a village.
In the interest of maintaining what binds us through thick and thin, Strawdog Theatre Company returns with a children’s tale fit for family revelry; even moreso, this production provides ample avenues of access to the learning, celebrating, and remembering of Jewish traditions: for the low cost of a suggested donation, Strawdog delivers much to its community. Wintry weather aside, there is little reason not to stop by the Rivendell Theatre and enjoy an afternoon of family fun.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins runs through December 12th at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N Ridge Ave. For tickets or more information, please visit strawdog.org.
Photos by Jenn Udoni of Franco Images.