Four people are onstage. A person in the middle is being pulled by the hands in opposite directions by two other people. Behind them is a fourth person, and behind all of them is a screen with a shadow puppet of a scary-looking creature.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins with Strawdog Theatre returns at Chicago Loop Synagogue. Credit: Jenn Udoni

Things get meta pretty quickly when you walk into the theater of Chicago Loop Synagogue to see Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

Cast members come out to schmooze with the audience members (especially young ones). During the first 15 minutes of the show, we’re treated to a wonderful performance by a band of roving Eastern European musicians. They juggle, joke around, dance, never letting on to a terrible secret: Money’s low, and they’ll have to depend on the kindness of strangers if they’re going to celebrate Hanukkah.

Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins
Through 12/23: Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 11 AM and 2 PM; sensory-friendly performance Sun 12/10 2 PM, audio description and touch tour Sun 12/17 11 AM (touch tour 10:15 AM), ASL interpretation Sun 12/17 2 PM, understudy performance Thu 12/21, postshow creative workshops following both performances on Sun 12/10; Chicago Loop Synagogue, 16 S. Clark,, free with advance reservations (donations accepted); all performances also available as a livestream option.

When the next shtetl’s hospitality leaves much to be desired, Hershel (Amanda Giles), the troupe’s leader, presents a story about his grandfather (also named Hershel, also played by Giles) who won over another village by defeating the Hanukkah goblins who’d taken over the old synagogue. 

Strawdog Theatre, producing Hershel in conjunction with Chicago Loop Synagogue, does a masterful job interpreting Eric Kimmel’s 1989 children’s book, adapted by Michael Dailey. (This is the sixth time they’ve presented the show but the first in this location.) Even in the small performance venue, the performers make great use of their space, quickly changing from character to character, jumping back and forth in time. 

The musical performances are uniformly good, with Giles (who makes even candle-lighting blessings especially melodic) and Peter Stielstra (who as Max accompanies much of the show on guitar) being standouts. Corin Wiggins seemed to have most of the duties bringing the goblins to life (though other cast members lent a hand)—the monsters are represented mainly as delightful cutouts and puppets. 

There’s a lot to like here. This was a story that would have lent itself to mugging, but the cast under the direction of Noah Elman really commits to bringing out the beauty in this tale. Adults will appreciate the performers just as much as the kids, who are likely to be entranced by the story (though a few very young folks were momentarily frightened by the goblins in the audience I was in).