Arts & Culture

Amphibian troupe stages Hanukkah-themed ‘Hershel’

Amphibian Stage Productions - "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." Nathanael Clark.
Amphibian Stage Productions - "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." Nathanael Clark.

There is a long list of characters that are taken out of storage this time of year for Yuletide theater offerings. Santa, Frosty, Rudolph and Ebenezer are but a few.

But this holiday season, Amphibian Stage Productions wants to add a new name (and a different holiday) to that list with a new children’s show opening at the theater Friday, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. It is based on a 1989 book of the same title.

“I do get the sense that Jewish kids are underrepresented in holiday theater in Dallas-Fort Worth,” says Scott Zenreich, who has served as an artistic associate at Amphibian for the past year. “I was raised Jewish in New York. And I remember this book from my childhood.

“There are certain images in this book that have stayed with me, and it’s been this thing that has been living with me.”

Zenreich is adapting the children’s book for the stage to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which, this year, runs Sunday through Dec. 14.

Also called the “Festival of Lights,” it commemorates a storied moment in Jewish history when a single day’s supply of olive oil miraculously lasted eight days, allowing the followers of Judah Maccabee to rededicate a temple in Jerusalem that had been taken back from the Syrians.

The event is commemorated by, among other things, the lighting of the iconic menorah associated with this holiday.

“Hanukkah is a battle victory. It really isn’t in the Bible,” Zenreich says. “I think it’s kind of blown up because little Jewish kids were jealous of Christmas.”

The holiday, with dates that vary from year to year, often falls around the same time as Christmas and shares a few similarities, such as traditional foods and gift giving. But Zenreich says there is not much literature or theater associated with the holiday.

“I don’t know if there really are Hanukkah stories,” Zenreich says. “I have read that the author of Hershel, Eric Kimmel, wrote it because he felt there were not many Hanukkah stories.

“I think it was inspired by A Christmas Carol in some ways,” he says.

Perhaps the most interesting common ground between Kimmel’s story and the Dickens classic is that both are ghost stories.

The story’s title character, Hershel (or Hershele) of Ostropol, was a Ukrainian Jew from the late 18th or early 19th century whose life and clever antics have inspired a number of tales.

“Hershel is sort of a Jewish folk hero,” Zenreich says. “He goes into this town and no one is celebrating Hanukkah because there are goblins haunting the synagogue at the top of the hill.

“And in order to defeat them, he must go up there and light a Hanukkah candle each night. And then on the eighth night, he has to get the king of the goblins to light them himself,” he says.

Hershel marks Amphibian’s first try at presentations for young audiences.

“The backstory is that we have an educational outreach program called Tadpoles. And about a year and a half ago, we started this ambitious initiative with our stilt-walking troupe, which is what Tadpoles is all about — teaching kids to walk on stilts,” Zenreich says.

“Our whole program now is stilts but, more specifically, identifying different cultures from around the world for which stilt walking is important. And so we do some African things, some French things, some native Mexican-American things.

“The whole idea is to empower kids and make them proud of their own cultures or other people’s cultures.”

In Hershel, stilts will be utilized by only one character, the King of the Goblins.

“It will be a 6-foot actor on 3-foot stilts with a 3-foot mask,” Zenreich says. “The first several goblins will not be very scary. But the last goblin will be as terrifying as possible.”

In addition to being a mix of humor and horror, Zenreich says, the show will incorporate some of the traditions of Hanukkah.

“There are definitely some technical Hanukkah things, like the lighting of Hanukkah candles and recitation of Hebrew and things. And Hershel plays a dreidel game,” says Zenreich, referring to the spinning top associated with the holiday. “But the idea of the show is that a child finds a book in his room and his imagination brings it to life.

“More than a religious story, it’s going to be about a child’s exploding imagination and that private moment when a kid is in his room playing — the joy of that.”

Zenreich says he hopes the show, which will be performed in a single, 45-minute act with a cast of seven, will become a holiday staple.

“Our whole mission is to expand the way we think about things and see the world. I think this totally fits with the kind of theater we like to make that asks questions and explores things, but in fun ways,” he says. “We have already penciled this in for our season next year. Maybe it will become our A Christmas Carol.”

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

  • Dec. 11-Dec. 20
  • Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S. Main St., Fort Worth
  • $12-$20
  • 817-923-3012; www.amphibianstage.com
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