Eric Kimmel's children's book
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
is a story that, aside from being engaging, is also gently subversive and proudly ethnic.
In Gas & Electric Arts' staged adaptation, Jacqueline Pardue Goldfinger adds live music, puppetry, and another layer of engagement with an Alice in Wonderland backstory that connects the book's wandering Jewish hero with a present-day audience of youngsters.
Jewish history is, of course, filled with some pretty rough stuff, and Hershel of Ostropol (David Blatt) is a shtetl superman, come to vanquish the beasties that torment this village - and, in Goldfinger's version, others like it - year-round. But on Hanukkah, it's the worst; occupying the synagogue, the goblins refuse to allow anyone to light a menorah.
It's sort of pogrom-lite, which, thankfully, isn't the easiest concept for American kids to grasp. So, Goldfinger adds 12-year-old Rachel (Mary Tuomanen, whose furrowed brow and no-nonsense mien always seem to anchor a show), a modern-day girl who recently lost her father and can't bear to light the candles without him. Her beloved Uncle Heshy (Blatt, again) disappeared after the funeral, and somehow, in this mirror world, the two of them unite to fight their own demons along with those threatening the village.
In a weaker production, this addition might overwhelm the story's core. While Goldfinger's dialogue isn't always as sharp as it ought to be, and Lisa Jo Epstein's direction occasionally takes too much time enjoying its own company, Kimmel's center holds. It helps that there's no shame in Hershel's game; Blatt, in a big, winning performance, has perhaps the most momentous nose on the Philly stage, and here, bearded, with tzitzit (prayer shawl fringes) hanging from his vest, he's no one's assimilationist fantasy. As a Jewish parent, it sure feels nice to take my own kids to a show where the guy who looks like that is the good guy, and the goblins are the ones hoarding gold and paying the price for their greed.
The villagers - Leila Ghaznavi, John Greenbaum, and Lorna Howley - along with a klezmer band featuring ubiquitous accordionist Rosie Langabeer, offer fine support. But Martina Plag's versatile set - three-wheeled, somber-gray constructions with nooks at every angle - literally keeps things moving, and her eight-nights' worth of creatively imagined goblins almost steal the show. Some of the creatures are fluffy and Muppet-like, others are more complex, requiring a team of three to operate their various discrete parts. But, much like this show, when those parts come together, they're a delight to watch.
Through Dec. 31 at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $16
to $25. Information: 215-925-9914