I understand Hanukkah-themed shows are hard to find. That’s why it’s so great that the critically acclaimed Strawdog Theatre Company from Chicago’s North Side is presenting their delightful, seasonal family show Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins in our community at Temple Har Zion in River Forest. The lively story, with a very animated and charming cast of six actors, is based on a beloved children’s picture book by Eric Kimmel, which was the Caldecott Honor winner for 1990.

I attended a performance of the play at Strawdog Theatre in the Northcenter neighborhood of Chicago, where it is also being staged. Before the show began, a young man sat down in the empty seat to my left and we had a nice chat. I asked if he knew any of the performers and he said he did. Before I realized what was happening, however, this guy was standing up, loudly blowing a kazoo, and declaring some of the first lines of the play. This actor was Jack Morsovillo who plays the title role of Hershel. 

The book has been adapted into an hour-long, action-packed tale by Strawdog ensemble member Michael Dailey, with spirited music and lyrics by Jacob Combs. Lauren Katz is the director. She has staged the play to move rapidly yet draw the audience in, closely and warmly. The little kids in the front rows were squealing with joy.

The show I saw is performed in-the-round with the five performers, other than Hershel, playing multi-roles. They are an energetic, talented troupe, and many musical instruments are played. Leo Zhu is especially good on his violin.

The cast employs puppetry and masks to portray the creepy goblins. It’s fun and exciting. I loved a bit in which one of the goblins got its hand stuck in a pickle jar.

The cast entertains an initially stingy innkeeper and his guests in exchange for food and shelter.

Hershel of Ostropol, it seems, is a poor but intrepid guy who has always lived by his wits. The setting appears to be a Jewish town in Eastern Europe. Weary Hershel enters a sad, dark little community where Hanukkah is no longer celebrated. It seems the synagogue is controlled by a band of ruthless goblins who forbid anyone to light the menorah candles. Hershel quickly decides to help the good people there and rid their village of this awful curse.

Hershel is a sort of cunning and courageous folk hero in this classic “outsmarting the bad guys” story. Each of the eight nights of Hanukkah he lights the candles in the abandoned temple and cleverly outwits the not very quick-thinking goblins who attempt to stop him.

Morsovillo and company really keep the audience thrilled and delighted. Other cast members include Sarah Bacinich, Brianna Joy Ford, Cohen Kraus, Josh Pennington and Zhu.

I am certain that families unfamiliar with Jewish culture or customs would find this show absorbing and fascinating. It may be helpful to understand three terms before watching the play, for those unfamiliar with these customs. Perhaps the action shows what is necessary to understand, but prepping may be helpful: 

1. menorah: a candelabrum used during Hanukkah. 

2. dreidel (sounds like “dray-del”): a four-sided spinning top with each side marked with Hebrew letters, used in a game traditionally played during Hanukkah. 

3. latke: a potato pancake. There is even a latke-making song in which the audience acts out part of the process.

Hershel & The Hanukkah Goblins is colorful and musical, full of comic bits and lively action. Children seem to love it, and when I saw it, adults were really enjoying it, too. 

Two matinee performances of Strawdog Theatre Company’s production will be performed at Temple Har Zion, 1040 N. Harlem Ave., River Forest, this Sunday, Dec. 22, at 1 p.m. and 4 p. m. Tickets are $24; $18.50 for children 12 and under. Tickets: wsthz.org/event/Hershel#. Also playing through Dec. 29 at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Chicago. $25; $20, kids/seniors; 10% off four or more tickets. More: strawdog.org. 

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...