As November steadily winds to an end, the days are becoming darker and darker- both literally as night begins to draw in earlier each day, bringing with it a taste of winter, and metaphorically as coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are once more on the rise. But not all hope is lost in the darkness. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of light and determination in the world to make things right and persevere in the face of daunting circumstances. Perhaps that’s what makes the University of New Hampshire’s newest filmed theatre production “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” just the show we need right now.
Based on the 1989 award-winning children’s book by Eric A. Kimmel, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” tells the story of a village whose synagogue is plagued by goblins who torment the villagers and sabotage Hanukkah year after year. All seems hopeless until Hershel of Osterpol plans to stay at the synagogue for the eight days of Hanukkah, ready to light the menorah and outsmart the tricky goblins for good. As director Carol Fisher takes this story from the storybook to the stage to the screen, she brings the tale to life with the use of both actors and puppetry. “Quite a few years ago, I was introduced to this popular children’s book during a production at a national children’s theater conference,” she commented. “I was very taken by the story performed by actors, but in my mind, I pictured that there was only one way to produce this tale, and that was with puppet Goblins!” Using Scott Zenreich’s puppet adaptation of the book and the talents of UNH’s own Advanced Puppetry class, Fisher details the dynamic variety of puppetry at play that’s used in the production: “To tell this tale, we are not presenting a puppet show, but a performance with actors who will be sharing scenes on the full stage with full-bodied, life-size puppet characters who will be playing the Goblin monsters.” Along with this, the show utilizes rod puppets alongside shadow imagery.
UNH’s “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” marks the university’s second stream-exclusive filmed production, following the theatre department’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” that premiered earlier this month. This departure from traditionally live theatre performances in light of COVID-19 has presented its own set of challenges as both production crews and actors find themselves adapting to working in a new medium: “One of the main elements of filming that surprised me as a stage director was how long it took to get just a few minutes of film,” says Fisher. “Having to redo something when the sound, lights, performance, and other elements needed tweaking was very different than a theatrical performance.” Along with this, due to social distancing and working with masks, necessary alterations had to be made, such as portraying the character Hershel of Osterpol, a Jewish folklore character and historical figure, “untraditionally beardless”.
Yet despite these challenges, the production persevered. Collaborating with one another, the actors and the crew worked together and shared ideas about how to approach the filming process. With this, despite the initial learning curve, the production team managed to find ways to perfect their respective crafts. “…I saw our actors use these retakes to improve and add to their characterization and the puppeteers found expanded ways to manipulate their puppets to bring life to them. We could move the camera’s view for wide shots or closeups, a trick staged productions usually can’t accomplish for the live audience,” explains Fisher, describing what surprised her and made her proud during the production process.
While director Carol Fisher and the crew have successfully finished production with Fisher appreciating the “new teaching and learning opportunities” that has come with it, her heart still lies with the traditional theatre experience: “It has been fun discovering the plus side of filming , but I have to say that there is nothing like the bond between the actors or puppeteers and the live audience when they collaborate in unity to make the magic happen!”
And although the show itself is adapted from a children’s book, “the show can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages,” says Fisher. Between the few musical numbers and technical aspects, and the nostalgia many have over Eric A. Kimmel’s story, its appeal is not limited to young viewers. Additionally, the story allows all viewers to learn more about Hanukkah and Jewish culture according to Fisher: “There are many traditions included in the script, so it is a friendly and inviting way to learn more about this cultural celebration.”
Even though we may be living in uncertain times right now, perhaps the story of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is more relevant than ever, both behind the scenes and on the screen: celebrating culture and finding new and clever ways to face our problems.
“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is streaming from Wednesday, November 19th to Saturday November 21st at 7:00 PM, with a 2:00 PM matinee performance Sunday November 22nd! Tickets are $10 for the general public, $8 for UNH ID holders/Seniors/Groups of 15+, and $6 for Youths 17 and Under.
(Special thanks to director Carol Fisher for her interview responses and contributions to this article!)