A village forced into darkness. Eight nights to bring light and joy back. Eight terrifying goblins, each more fearsome than the last. One clever wanderer who can outsmart them and save Hanukkah.
UNH’s filmed performance of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins”, a musical play based on the children’s book of the same name, manages to be both extremely charming and culturally informative of Hanukkah and Jewish traditions. Despite alterations and challenges brought upon by the coronavirus (COVID-19), the effort and care put into the production is more than apparent and adds to the magic that manages to whisk the viewer away for forty minutes to the old synagogue and a world of goblins.
Visually, the play is a treat to view. The puppetry used throughout the play is a joy to look at, and the wide array of puppet sizes and styles used throughout the production is well utilized. Although the life-sized puppets and hand puppets used to portray the goblins are one of the highlights of the show, the subtler uses of puppetry through shadow imagery manages to capture some of the softer moments in the show both in the beginning as Hershel arrives in town and after he defeats the goblins, and feels like a return to the storybook origins of the play.
The acting in this show is also a pleasure. Although the dialogue and overall story tend to be geared toward younger audiences, this does not stop the actors from bringing charisma into their performances that can appeal to viewers of all ages. Leading man Kevin McDonough as Hershel of Osterpol for instance exudes cleverness and charm as he sets to work tricking the goblins in his quest to light the menorah every night. McDonough’s performance is only strengthened by his co-stars, the titular goblins, whose dramatic silliness highlights Hershel’s sense of cunning and the lightheartedness of the entire show.
Even with “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” being more of a play than a musical, the musical elements and choreography of the story are very engaging. Aside from the occasional audio hiccups in the show, the music and sounds help bring the story to life. With the majority of the music derived from traditional Hanukkah and Jewish songs, the audience gets to take part in the spirit of Hanukkah and gain a deeper understanding of the holiday, and the large dance number at the show’s finale brings the story to a bombastic and festive conclusion.
Although the origins of Hanukkah itself are not fully explained in the play, the story of Hershel and his battle against the goblins loosely mirrors the story of Hanukkah in a way that audiences of all ages can understand the holiday more. The goblins seem to serve as a metaphor for those who attempted to stop the Jewish people from practicing their religion in ancient times, with the goblins’ unexplained hatred for Hanukkah perhaps mirroring the baselessness of religious intolerance. In turn, Hershel’s fighting spirit is similar to that of the Maccabees who fought for their beliefs despite the odds against them. In the end, this makes the play all the more impactful, especially with young audiences in mind who are possibly being introduced to Jewish culture and Hanukkah for the first time through this production.
Overall, this UNH production managed to hit all the right marks. The theatrical experience of the show, although done digitally due to circumstances, is nonetheless warm and inviting. The playful acting against detailed and well-crafted sets and puppets is delightfully lighthearted amidst these very trying times, and the cultural elements neatly woven into the story help audiences walk away with a better understanding of what Hanukkah truly means.
Photo Courtesy of UNH Theatre