By Bryson David Hoff
There’s no way around it: Zoom theatre is not a substitute for the real thing. It is an art form of necessity, allowing companies to put out something to keep its audience engaged during this challenging period of time where live theatre is forced to take a break. It is hard to conceive of a Zoom production that would be of comparable quality to a stage show. In view of this, reviewing a Zoom production like Strawdog’s Zoom-ified version of its perennial adaptation of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins presents a challenge, as the shortcomings of the medium are pretty much immutable and can become frustrating for an audience that, after eight months of no live entertainment, is anxious for some kind of return to normalcy. As such, it becomes hard to call this production “good,” but it’s unfair to call it “bad” either. It’s simply the best we can hope for until the vaccine has proliferated enough for us to have the real thing back.
Based on Erik Kimmel’s classic children’s book, the play is an allegorical fable about Jewish identity in the face of oppression. Hershel (Rebecca Keeshin) 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.
For those who may have caught the stage show in previous years, Keeshin plays a very different Hershel and her choices are clearly tailored to the Zoom medium. With audience interaction, a major element of the script, limited to the chat function, she must provide more of the energy and enthusiasm than her predecessors in the role. Her Hershel is bubbly and has a decidedly “old-school kids show” energy. This works for her, though, and does not detract from the more serious moments in the story.
The use of intentionally simplistic props, realized by designer Manny Ortiz as mostly cardboard cutouts, is effective. By making the props simple enough to make multiples to ship to the scattered performers, Ortiz’s props can be “passed” from actor to actor through their screens, which, while a pretty basic effect, is still very entertaining to see. This awareness of the artificiality of performing a play through a video chat is a source of comedy that more Zoom performances would do well to mine.
The musical elements of the show, however, do not translate as well to the medium. To be clear, the performers’ musical talents are absolutely equal to their roles, however the fact that the Zoom software was not built to accommodate multiple people making sound at the same time makes ensemble singing impossible. This ends up sucking a lot of the life out of the songs and making some of them drag in a way that they don’t in the stage show, as instead of the whole cast singing at once, they instead each take a verse. This coupled with the fact that the music is not intrinsically tied to the plot starts to beg the question of whether excluding it from this imagining wouldn’t have been to the benefit of the show.
So, when looked at as a whole, is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’s translation to virtual theatre successful? The answer is “About as successful as anything written for a theatre stage could be in this form.” As of this writing, experts predict that the COVID-19 vaccine will have proliferated enough that gatherings like live theatre may be able to resume by late spring/early summer 2021. Whether this timeline proves accurate or not, it’s pretty obvious that the end of the pandemic is in sight and, with it, almost certainly the end of Zoom as a medium for theatrical entertainment. As with so many things born of the pandemic, it will not be missed. While it’s by no means perfect, nothing that is wrong with Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is the fault of any of the creatives involved. Rather, like so many things in this wasteland of a year, this year’s incarnation has simply been tainted by the ongoing pandemic. But we know that we just have to make it through this winter and, G-d willing, next year we’ll be able to return to a world where we can enjoy the things we love with the people we love. Which, in a way, is a very appropriate mindset to take away from a Hanukkah story.
Strawdog Theatre Company presents “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” through December 20. More information and tickets are available here.