Pictured: Nicole Bloomsmith. Photo by Collin Quinn Rice.
By Aaron Lockman
Do you ever go to review a show, and the moment you step in the lobby, you immediately think, “Oh, this was an eerily good decision on PerformInk’s part. I am exactly the person they should have sent.” Nobody? Just me? Okay.
HERSHEL AND THE HANNUKAH GOBLINS is a show that is deeply steeped not only in Eastern-European Jewish folklore, but the humor, heart, and uniquely Jewish wit that pervades that folklore. And as an Eastern-European Jew myself, seemingly everything from the moment I stepped in the door was perfectly tailored to stimulate the nostalgia centers of my brain. Klezmer music plays in the background; there are complimentary bagels and schmear (although this may have been unique to opening night), and once you sit down, cast members come into the audience to talk to the kids, make balloon animals, and crack self-deprecating jokes.
As the show begins, we are treated to a series of short musical numbers and gags that evoke Jewish vaudeville of the early twentieth century. The actors’ enthusiasm for the show and chemistry with each other, plus each cast member’s impeccable comedic sense, is immediately clear.
Our protagonist Hershel (played with an understated yet effervescent charm by Anderson Lawfer) introduces his troupe of actors to us and explains that they are travelers who go from village to village, telling stories and creating merriment. After some shenanigans with an innkeeper, whom the actors eventually convince to give them food and shelter in return for a performance, the story begins in proper. Together, the troupe tells the story of Hershel’s grandfather (played by Hershel himself, and also named Herschel), and how he singlehandedly saved a village from a Hanukkah-hating infestation of cheeky goblins by infiltrating their base in the old abandoned synagogue, outwitting each goblin over the eight nights of Hanukkah.
The script is as clever and quick-witted as its protagonist. Much of this comes from the original children’s book by Eric Kimmel, but adapter Michael Dailey deserves credit for translating the tale to the stage in a straightforward and endearing manner.
But what elevates this story the most are the technical elements, which are sparingly used but incredibly effective. The set by John Ross Wilson appears slapped together from marble, wood, candles, and old leather suitcases – it evokes the time and setting well, but more importantly, it looks good while still feeling homespun and slapdash, and contains many detachable props and bits for the actors to play with. The lighting design from Aaron Lorenz is mostly deep oranges and yellows meant to imitate the comforting warmth of Hanukkah candles, but the colors go to wild and dangerous places at key points in Hershel’s journey. And the special effects that mark the arrival of the Goblin King (Hershel’s final boss, as it were) are a masterstroke; genuinely terrifying for the children in the audience, and still delightfully chilling for the adults.
The show’s music, from Jacob Combs and Rachel Hoovler, deserves special mention. Played almost entirely by the actors themselves on piano, guitar, clarinet, flute, and fiddle (how do they find all these multitalented people?!?), the Klezmer-y score guides the audience through the show’s emotional beats with pinpoint precision, at turns joyful, sad, and suspenseful.
Director Jacqueline Stone had many different balls up in the air with this production – a new script, original music, a wide variety of integral props and technical elements, and a slew of Christmas shows to go up against. But she pulled it all together, and as a result, HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS feels like a confluence of marvels. It avoids the mawkish cheeriness of other holiday shows by leaning into wit, heart, and skill – and at an hour long, it packs an efficient punch. A wonderful outing for kids and adults alike.
HERSHEL AND THE HANNUKAH GOBLIN runs through January 5th. For more information visit http://www.strawdog.org.