By Bryson David Hoff
Children’s theatre is, stereotypically, a world of bright colors, loud music and cloying sweetness. For some reason, it’s considered such a monumental task to get a young audience into the theatre to begin with that many companies are afraid to do anything but the safest, blandest entertainment for them once they are there.
Thankfully, at a time of year where even the edgiest of Chicago companies is putting up a holiday show, Strawdog’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is a refreshingly smart and layered piece of theatre that is sure to delight both children and parents alike.
Based on Erik Kimmel’s classic children’s book, the play is an allegorical fable about Jewish identity in the face of oppression. Hershel (Jack Morsovillo) arrives in a new town on the first night of Hanukkah and learns that the townspeople are prevented from celebrating by the villainous goblins that haunt the old synagogue. He takes up the challenge of spending the entire festival inside of the synagogue and each night defending the menorah from being extinguished by the supernatural beings.
Morsovillo absolutely makes this production. Hershel, a stock character of Jewish folklore, is sly, witty, and something of a benign troublemaker. Morsovillo plays these qualities to the hilt and, though the rest of the ensemble does a quality job, it’s his central performance that stands out, as well it should. In a show that is structured to allow a certain amount of freewheeling and audience interaction, he is deft in his ability to bring the audience in while still keeping the pace moving. The play takes on a certain amount of contained anarchy with him at the center, a position where he seems one hundred percent in his element.
The other major production element to be praised is the scenic and prop design by Evan Frank. Using a few simple moving set-pieces, Frank is able to perfectly evoke the old-school traveling performance troupe feel that the script calls for and which is such a perfect fit for Strawdog’s storefront. Likewise, the manner in which the goblins are realized in a mix of puppetry and Elle Erickson’s costume designs, is fittingly inventive and honestly, probably a much more intellectually stimulating effect for younger audience members than a more realist approach might be.
The result is a refreshingly dark family comedy that will engage children without boring their parents and, whereas so many holiday shows can feel like a shameless cash grab, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins genuinely feels like it’s trying to do right be the traditions it presents, albeit with an updated stylistic sensibility. There’s a certain amount of heart and warmth to the production that you just don’t get with more typical holiday fare.
Strawdog Theatre Company presents Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins through December 29th. More information and tickets are available here.