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Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-12-10

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Author: Michael Daily, from the book by Eric Kimmel

At: Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets: strawdog.org; $20-$25. Runs through: Jan. 5 ( weekend matinees only )

Hanukkah is over but Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins plays into early January, a refreshing new flavor in the large stew pot of holiday theater. It joins a limited subset of shows suitable for young children, as long as they can muster an attention span of about 50 minutes ( probably as young as three ). And you needn't know anything about Hanukkah except that it lasts eight days and you light candles, making Hershel about as religious as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Indeed, much like Dr. Seuss's celebrated story, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins began life ( in 1989 ) as a prize-winning illustrated children's book. Similar to Grinch, it concerns meanies who want to shut down the holiday and steal its joy. These particular goblins reside in Chelm, a legendary town of Jewish folklore where each citizen is wiser and more clever than his/her neighbors, meaning it's a town of fools. They ponder long and hard over such profound philosophical questions as "What happens to the hole after you eat the bagel?" Fortunately, the goblins of Chelm are on par with the humans and so they easily are tricked by a real trickster, Hershel of Ostropol ( a hero of many Jewish folktales ), who saves Hanukkah and also wins himself a pot of gold.

The brief play begins and ends with spritely original music and song by Jacob Combs in klezmer style, which has been likened to Jewish Dixieland, played on guitar, clarinet, violin, flute and tambourine. The players engage the audience with bits of tumbling, juggling and clowning, presenting themselves as a rag-tag band of traveling players asking to present the tale of Hershel in exchange for a night's food and lodging. The rest is easy from there as Hershel tricks a different goblin for each night of Hanukkah. However, the adapters are too smart to portray all eight days, and so condense it to days 1-3 and 8.

As directed by Jacqueline Stone, it's all child-like in wonder, occasionally childish in action and performed by six actors clearly enjoying themselves, without the least bit of condescension towards kids. The good guys win and there are bagels and cream cheese in the lobby. What more could anyone want?

This world premiere adaptation could turn into an annual holiday presentation if Strawdog would slightly enlarge it. There could be a touch more story—it will be fine if it's 10 minutes longer—and adding some special effects and stage magic would help a lot. Another song or two would be great, especially some type of signature music for the goblins and for Hershel.

NOTE: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is performed at weekend matinees ONLY, Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.


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