From “A Christmas Carol” to “Krampus,” you can’t have the holidays without scary stories.
Paul Mesner Puppets and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City stave off the dark chill of December with “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” an adaptation of the beloved book by Eric Kimmel (“The Runaway Tortilla,” “I Took My Frog to the Library”).
“Hershel,” now in its third year, appeals to both traditionalists and those looking for something a little different as a spirited addition to the holiday’s events.
“While it is a tale of Hanukkah, and it is parallel to the historical story of Hanukkah, in some ways it’s a sort of ghost story,” says Mike Horner, associate artistic director for Paul Mesner Puppets.
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Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday in JCC’s White Theater.
The play follows the adventures of the folk hero Hershel of Ostropol, a real-life historical figure whose reputation emerged from East European shtetls (smaller, isolated market towns). He’s the hero of several larger-than-life tales, a traveling prankster who survives with his wits.
Author Kimmel, who is Jewish, has written a number of Jewish-themed children’s books. “Hershel” is one of his most popular, celebrating its 25th anniversary last year.
Kimmel draws inspiration from the folk stories of many traditions. This Hershel tale is an original that was influenced by both Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the Ukrainian folk tale “Ivanko, the Bear’s Son,” in which Ivan outwits a goblin.
In this story, Hershel comes across a village infested with goblins who haunt the synagogue and thwart any attempt to celebrate the traditions of the Festival of Lights. Hershel takes on the goblins using the barest of resources — a dreidel, a jar of pickles, a hard-boiled egg — and his legendary wit.
The play also incorporates other Hershel stories, collected and retold by Kimmel, as Hershel talks his way out of difficult situations.
“We try to do research into who Hershel actually was and stay within the folklore that exists,” Horner says.
The evolution from story to the Paul Mesner Puppets performance started years ago with a one-person show that toured local schools with puppets only a few feet tall. Three years ago the Jewish Community Center reached out to the company to create a Hanukkah show.
They expanded the original concept to a much bigger scale, filling White Theater with full-sized sets, a longer script and many more puppets, now requiring seven puppeteers to operate and voice them. The puppets, too, have gotten larger, ranging from 4 feet tall to larger than human-sized.
But this show is different from a typical puppet show. The production includes a live-action Hershel, played by veteran actor Victor Raider-Wexler, who also gives voice to the puppet version of the character. Raider-Wexler has performed on television, in film and theater in New York and Kansas City, done voice work for video games and, at the start of his career, even operated marionettes.
He became involved with Paul Mesner Puppets when it created puppets to accompany family services during the high holidays at Temple B’nai Jehudah, where he was a congregant. He was so versatile with voices the company asked him to join it for its traditional Nativity pageant. He was a natural choice when the opportunity to create the large-scale “Hershel” came along.
Mesner wrote the script, but Horner credits Raider-Wexler with helping shape the character.
“While we were rehearsing, Victor kept throwing in these great lines … and we just kept adding them to the script,” Horner says. “He may or may not take credit for it, but much of the inspiration for the Hershel character came from this humor Victor has and all these great old Jewish jokes that he knows. It was perfect for the character of Hershel because he was a prankster.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘Ghostbusters,’ but you might call it ‘Goblinbusters,’ ” Horner says. “Hershel is sent with the task to dispense with all these goblins, and part of the fun is watching him trick all these … creepy creatures who are causing mischief.”
The show can be a little scary at times — there is a huge, black-robed King of the Goblins — but it’s also fun and appropriate for all ages (it runs about an hour), with broad humor and comic voices to appeal to kids and witty asides for the grown-up crowd.
Paul Mesner Puppets and the Jewish Community Center present “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” at White Theatre, 5801 W. 115th St., Overland Park. Tickets are $9-$15 through paulmesnerpuppets.org. Performances are at 10 a.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday.