By Colin Douglas
Presented like a holiday vaudeville show aimed at younger audiences, Strawdog Theatre’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is lively, laughter-provoking entertainment is actually a play-within-a-play.
It employs, music, puppetry and the audience’s own imagination to tell the story of Jewish folk hero, Hershel of Ostropol. This clever trickster, seemingly a middle European version of Anansi the Spider or the witty Hebrew cousin of the American Br’er Rabbit, is portrayed with contagious glee by ensemble member Anderson Lawfer. He’s supported by a capital company of multi-talented actors and musicians including Nicole Bloomsmith, Sophie Scanlon, Harmony Zhang, Frank Gasparro and Jon Penick.
Adapted from Eric Kimmel’s beloved holiday picture book, which earned the 1990 Caldecott Honor Award, the 60-minute play was written by ensemble member Michael Daily. It features spirited ethnic music and lyrics by Jacob Combs and is presented without intermission in story theatre fashion. In it, a troupe of six players, all of whom portray multiple Jewish characters, and play an array of musical instruments, pack up their belongings and head out onto the road.
After traveling a long way, the troupe stops at a village where they request food and a place to sleep from the local innkeeper. Penniless, the troupe leader offers to entertain the concierge and his guests in exchange for his generosity. When eventually offered the opportunity, the actors perform the exciting tale of Hershel of Ostropol. In the play, Hershel has discovered a sad little town where Hanukkah is no longer celebrated. The reason for this, the townsfolk lament, is that their temple has been overtaken by goblins who’ve forbidden the people to light the menorah candles. Hershel accepts their challenge to spend the next eight nights in the temple, whereupon he’ll try to trick the goblins, including the fearsome Goblin King, into lighting the menorah themselves, and thus bring brightness and holiday joy back to the village.
The production is guided with spirit and sparkle by Jacqueline Stone, the inventive artistic director of both TUTA and Emerald City Theatre. She carefully mines the skill and strengths from each of her six-member ensemble and keeps the production in continual movement. Rachel Hoovler musically directs this instrument-wielding cast. The show is staged upon an adaptable fragmented set, designed by John Ross Wilson and lit with moodiness by Aaron Lorenz. The cast is suitably attired in traditional eastern European folk costumes, courtesy of Rachel Sypniewski.
Strawdog Theatre’s world premiere is clever, thrilling and filled with music, warmth and good humor. Youngsters already familiar with Kimmel’s wonderful picture book will enjoy seeing the story come to life. Witnessing Hershel getting the best of a band of bogeymen, in order to restore Hanukkah to a town plunged into darkness, is great fun for audiences of all ages. Theatergoers unfamiliar with the Festival of Lights, will not only delight in a well-told folktale, but will learn a little bit about this traditional Jewish holiday. This is one hysterical humdinger of a treat that offers a brand new holiday option for Chicago audiences.
Strawdog Theatre presents “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” through January 5, 2019, at 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.