With the December calendar choked with Christmas shows—Nativities, Nutcrackers, shows about Santa crying and A Christmas Carol featuring the Golden Girls—it seems only fitting that some alternate holiday programming should pop up. Hanukkah seems like a natural choice.
It’s been pointed out to me several times that Christmas is actually a great time to be Jewish. One can enjoy family, parties, and gifts without the elaborate pageantry and frenzy of Christmas. Of course, there are eight days of gifts during Hanukkah instead of the measly one for Christmas. And Chinese food and a movie on Christmas day instead of church and being closeted away with relatives who want to relive their latest bus trip to Branson, Missouri can sound like heaven.
But what is the story behind the celebration of Hanukkah? Traditionally, Hanukkah was not a major Jewish festival and has only become prominent within the past 50 to 60 years, particularly in the U.S. Hanukkah commemorates an Israelite revolt in the second century B.C. against Syrian oppressors. Basically, the Jews did not want to assimilate into Hellenistic culture and they put up a successful resistance. The holiday also celebrates the miracle in which one day’s supply of oil managed to keep the candelabra in the Jewish temple lit for eight days straight during this aforementioned resistance. Today, the celebration focuses more on the theme of overcoming religious oppression than on God’s miracle with the oil.
|hershel and the hanukkah goblins, playing through december 22 at minnesota jewish theatre company. for tickets ($16) and information, see mnjewishtheatre.org.|
In the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s current production of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, the story of Hanukkah is told using a traveling salesman named Hershel and some Goblins (oppressive Syrians?) as stand-ins. The people in the village of Helmsbergville are being held “hostage” by some purportedly badass goblins that forbid them from celebrating Hanukkah. It’s never explained exactly why the goblins don’t like Hanukkah, but if you happen to be an adult in the audience, you can’t help but surmise that the goblins are anti-Semitic creatures out to crush Jewish religion and culture.
Or maybe that’s just my politically-correct college experience talking.
When Hershel arrives in the village, he is elected to be the person who finally goes to the synagogue and deals with the goblins so the villagers can have their Hanukkah feast. The deal is he must stay there and light the menorah candles each night for seven nights, and on the eighth night he must get the King of the Goblins to light them.
Admittedly, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is a production aimed at children (something to ease them into accepting the reality of religious oppression?) and could indeed be a highly entertaining experience for some. The actors—particularly Wendy Freshman as Hershel—give the story everything they’ve got and the opening scenes set up what could be a good story but, sometimes even the greatest acting talent can’t overcome a mediocre script.
The goblins in the production are puppets (designer Chris Griffith won a 2009 Ivey Award for them) that in personality possess scant amounts of the treachery goblins have become known for throughout their mythic history. The first goblins Hershel encounters are little more than clichés of the stupid henchmen we’ve seen over and over again—stooges for the boss, in this case the King of Goblins. Hershel dispenses with them easily, which is disappointing for anyone in the audience expecting something challenging or clever.
One might make the argument that in a show for children, goblins should be goofy instead of frightening, although this decision drains the story of any potential drama. Some of the most successful children’s books and movies involve not only mythic creatures and the supernatural but also take on dark themes with aplomb, without shirking potentially scary or sad imagery. Of course, Harry Potter comes immediately to mind—but other recent movies and books include the likes of Coraline, Wall-E, Up, and Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as classics like the Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, and even A Christmas Carol. And Jewish history, which is certainly filled with more than its fair share of hatred and oppression, probably deserves some harder-edged goblins. Otherwise, what you end up with is a light, touching story about silly goblins that just happen to prevent people from being themselves and expressing their beliefs, which feels incongruous.
But maybe that’s my politically-correct college experience talking again.
Setting aside the debate about the personality of the goblins, there is was also a major let-down when I realized that the King of the Goblins was no more than a pair of feet. The idea, of course, was that he was so giant we could only see part of him, but I would have preferred a giant head, or even a sinister pair of eyes, over feet and a voice. (Again, I realize this is a production for kids. But shouldn’t there be some middle ground between sparing children anything even mildly scary and boring the parents?) Surely he could have been given more stage presence. It was akin to the notorious disappointment of the eighth season of the TV show Dallas, when the audience found out the entire season was a dream.
But Hershel, of course, easily wins the day, duping the king into lighting the entire menorah in under 30 seconds, making me wonder if the writer didn’t suddenly become bored with the story and want to wrap things up. Or maybe the quick ending was crafted with consideration for the young audience and their short attention span. After an hour they want to be on to other things—playing outside, drinking juice, eating tasty snacks—and leave the subjects of goblins, hungry traveling salesmen, and oppression behind for the day. I know I did.
|This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|