Move over, Nutcracker; make way, Tiny Tim: there is a new theatrical tradition in town this year just in time for the holidays, and this one features hot latkes, chocolate gelt, live klezmer music and Chanukah candle lighting. Gas and Electric Arts, a Philadelphia-based theater company founded by Lower Merion native Lisa Jo Epstein and partner David Brown in 2005, is staging the world premiere of "Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins," adapted from Eric Kimmel's much-loved contemporary fable of the same name.
"As a kid, my parents took me to 'The Nutcracker' and I saw 'A Christmas Carol' on TV, but the only really cultural Jewish tradition that we had at that time of year was eating Chinese food on Xmas," Epstein says. "I wanted to create a universal theater experience that would put Chanukah at the center. I wanted to create an opportunity for people who have not seen their families being portrayed on stage before to watch a play that echoes their family's cultural and religious traditions."
Epstein's vision began when reading Kimmel's Caldecott award-winning book to her daughter, Zivia, now in fourth grade. To Epstein, Kimmel's tale about a village in the old country where scary goblins prevent the townspeople from celebrating Chanukah was a metaphor about oppression and the courage that it takes to face it. In Kimmel's book, a mysterious stranger named Hershel comes to town and confronts a different goblin on each night of Chanukah until he finally faces the King of the Goblins. It was both Hershel's mysterious character and the imaginative, archetypal role of the goblins that inspired Epstein to ask the questions that frame the dramatic narrative of the play: why do the goblins hate Chanukah to begin with? What is it in Hershel that causes him to face the goblins? And how can we build bridges with those who act as our enemies?
In Epstein's staging of the play, Kimmel's short story is framed by a narrative about a young, 21st-century girl named Rachel who has recently lost her father. Dejected during Chanukah, the girl magically travels back in time to another world (in a "Wizard of Oz"-like paradigm), meets Hershel and can only get back to her own world if she helps him face the scary goblins and help the villagers celebrate Chanukah.
Skeptical of goblins (after all, she is from the 21st century) yet curious and concerned, Rachel soon learns that she is in a world where those once considered congenial neighbors can turn ghastly and ghostly in a rush for power. Over the course of eight nights, Rachel and Hershel trick the bullying goblins in a variety of highly imaginative ways, even though with each night, the goblins get smarter and scarier, until they meet the King of the Goblins himself, whom they succeed in getting to light the candles, which instantly breaks the spell. As he roars with fury and breaks into a million pieces, the earth trembles and a whirlwind howls, yet the candles never flicker. Their flames burn clear and steady. The villagers come rushing in, the klezmer band plays a wild candle song and the entire town breaks into a celebratory dance. The underling goblins now join the villagers and begin to make overtures towards reconciliation and understanding. As the townspeople whirl around her and the world becomes a joyful blur, Rachel rubs her eyes and realizes she is in her own home again. She scrambles to her feet, shaking off her wild dream, and excitedly gets everyone working together to save the holiday and bring light into their time of darkness.
Epstein points out that, though the play addresses serious themes, it is also full of humor, music and magic. She believes that people of all backgrounds will appreciate Hershel's message. She has been working with composer Gregg Mervine, founder of the West Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of the Klez Dispensers, on an original score for "Hershel" featuring live klezmer music that will create a festive atmosphere in the theater for young and old alike.
Epstein emphasizes that, although "Hershel" comes from a children's book, the theatrical adaptation is being created with both children and adults in mind. The play illustrates themes that can stimulate conversations between parents and children after the show about such themes as the power of community and teamwork, creativity and problem solving, courage and leadership, and the sweetness of freedom. Gas and Electric Arts is also creating an education guide to go with the play for educators to use for post-show learning. (Epstein does remind parents that the show is not recommended for children under age 7.)
The production of "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins" is an ensemble creation in which all members — from actors to puppet designer, composer, playwright and dramaturg — are creative contributors.
Starting with one week of initial script development followed by a break and then a six-week period of further development and rehearsal, Epstein has guided the ensemble through a collaborative creation process to devise not only the text of the play but the movement and puppetry score of the production. (Devising is a creative process in which no script exists prior to the work's creation by the company.)
In addition to reading Kimmel's book, the "Hershel" creative team immersed themselves in learning as part of their process, from learning about historical information related to the shtetls of Eastern Europe to Yiddish humor and studying various interpretations of Chanukah and acts of resistance. Barrymore Award-nominated playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger has used the devised material created in rehearsals as the basis of the actual script, writing scenes and songs that arise from the improvisations and physical tasks that Epstein initiates, and providing key insight into the structure of the play. "I think of adaptation in terms of being true to the soul of the original story, especially with a book like 'Hershel,' which only takes five minutes to read — yet we are turning it into a full-length play with music," Goldfinger explains. "If we were only dramatizing what's literally in the book, the show would be very short, so it's exciting to explore the soul of the piece and elaborate on the characters' journeys. We will weave moments from the original picture book into the larger world of the stage play."
Puppet and set designer Martina Plag, a former architect, has been collaborating with Epstein for over a year to hone in on the goblins and scenic environment so that the production could have puppets and a fully functioning set in rehearsals. Epstein regularly integrates the puppetry and animation of objects to produce emotionally charged stage imagery in her stage production.
The set itself is comprised of three multi-functioning moveable, transformative pieces. The movement, placement and usage of these pieces will be devised and designed by the ensemble in the rehearsal studio so that these architectural pieces can be suggestive of numerous settings, both physical and emotional.
Epstein and David Brown, managing director of Gas and Electric Arts (and Epstein's husband), wanted to make "Hershel" not only a fantastic theater experience for Chanukah, but also a way for the greater Jewish community to come together to celebrate the holiday. They have included communal Chanukah candle-lighting as part of the theater experience for several of the performances. On December 21, candle lighting will be lead by Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Congregation Mishkan Shalom; on December 22, lighting will be lead by Rabbi Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue; on December 25th, it will be done by Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre; and on December 27th the lighting will be led by Rabbi Phil Warmflash, executive director of Jewish Learning Venture.
And Epstein and Brown are making sure that no one needs to forsake one Jewish cultural tradition to come out for a new one: people coming to the December 25th show can choose a Chinese dinner/show package and eat kosher Chinese food right at the Painted Bride before coming in to the theater to enjoy the show.