As this writer entered Strawdog Theatre for the opening performance of this holiday show, it was impossible not to sense the excitement and energy of the young audience members in the lobby. The company had an art table set up with crayons and coloring pages, which was only just the start. Once the theater opened its doors, the cast met each of the kids with activities ranging from balloon animals to music, and some even did gymnastic routines on the stage. What quickly became clear was that this ensemble was ready to engage the young audience members from the very beginning, which only helped up the excitement when the lights went down, and the play officially began.
Strawdog Theatre presents World Premiere of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
Adapted from Eric Kimmel’s original book by Michael Dailey, the play follows a performing group in desperate need of money. Along their travels they happen upon an inn, and Hershel (Anderson Lawfer), the leader of the group, offers the innkeeper a performance in return for food and shelter for the night. After much argument, the innkeeper agrees, and the group retells the story of how Hershel’s grandfather (also by the name of Hershel) used trickery and wit to end the curse of the Hanukkah Goblins. As long as they reign, they will continue to blow out the Hanukkah candles in the town each night, and Hershel decides he is the one to stop them.
Playing to the Audience
The adaptation is full of humor, and Director Jacqueline Stone’s production successfully keeps the young audience engaged from start to finish. Stone and her team utilize live music and dance that offer creative access points for the kids, helping break up the story, and offering moments for these particular audience members to dance around in their seats along with the cast. It is clear to this writer that every moment of the production is thoughtfully crafted to engage the audience, and their enthusiasm only adds to the overall experience.
In addition to the music, Stone and Set and Props Designer John Ross Wilson collaborate to cleverly help bring the elements of the play to visual life. For example, in the story of the Hanukkah Goblins, Grandpa Hershel must climb up a mountain to the old synagogue in which the goblins live in order to break the curse. As the troupe tells of this part of the journey, they bring out a suitcase that opens to show a 3D model of a small person climbing up the mountain. The model is full of impressive detail, from stars in the sky to the trees and pathway on the mountain. As the troupe shares the story, Hershel is able to visually show the journey to the young audience, helping maintain that access and engagement in multiple avenues.
The story itself details Hershel’s eight nights in the old synagogue, and how he encounters a goblin each night he attempts to light the candles. Lawfer’s portrayal of Grandfather Hershel is clever and witty, with a fun stage presence that plays along with the audience, inviting them in on his jokes.
Stone and her team make each goblin distinct in design, allowing them to grow in size with the help of the ensemble members portraying them. The first goblin for example, portrayed by Nicole Bloomsmith, is the smallest, and Wilson and Costume Designer Rachel Sypniewski create a small cutout of a goblin to place on a wall behind which Bloomsith can hide her body. As the tiny goblin attempts to scare Hershel, the audience roars with laughter, and is ready to cheer as Hershel outwits her.
The King of the Goblins (portrayed by Jon Penick and Harmony Zhang) appears on the last night, and Lighting Designer Aaron Lorenz aids in the performance through masking the actors in darkness, allowing the goblin to appear in silhouette form. This writer was impressed by the effect, and how the design helped sharpen the contrast, creating an event out of the final test for Grandpa Hershel.
Clever stagecraft and a talented ensemble make Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins in this writer’s opinion the perfect family play for this time of year. This writer has seen quite a few productions meant for young audiences, and rarely has she seen a group of such young kids remain so engaged for an entire 60 minutes.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Adaptor… Michael Dailey
Music & Lyrics… Jacob Combs
Director… Jacqueline Stone
Assistant Director… Whitney Minarik
Set Design… John Wilson
Light Design…Aaron Lorenz
Costume Design…Rachel Sypniewski
Ass't Costume Design… Gianna Charron
Composer… Jacob Combs
Music Director…Rachel Hoovler
Sound Design…Jeffrey Levin
Stage Manager…Hannah Cremin
Ass't Stage Manager… Lili Bjorklund
Running through January 5, 2019
Saturdays at 10:00am and 1:00pm
Sundays at 10:00am and 1:00pm
Running Time: 60 minutes, no intermission.
Strawdog Theatre Company
1802 W Berenice Ave.
Chicago, IL 60613
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.