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Hanukkah Celebrated By Paul Mesner Puppets At Jewish Community Center

On Kansas City stages during the holiday season, there's an abundance of shows with Christmas themes. Audiences can go from Kansas City Ballet's The Nutcracker toKansas City RepertoryTheatre's A Christmas Carol, with several other destinations in between. Those looking for that rare Hanukkah show, however, will be in luck with a new collaboration between theJewish Community Centerand thePaul Mesner Puppets.

 Mind the gap

As the Director of Cultural Arts for the Jewish Community Center, Krista Blackwood has a mission: programming arts events that appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. But a review of the performance options at this time of the year revealed a gap that she felt had to be filled.

"The Jewish Community (Center) is supportive of a lot of the holiday programming that goes on in Kansas City but there isn't something that's specifically Jewish for Hanukkah," Blackwood says.

"You have your Nutcracker, your Christmas Carol, your Messiah. You've got your secular and Christian traditions covered. And I thought it would be really nice to try and build something that we can do from year to year for the Jewish community in celebration of Hanukkah, so my first thought was Paul Mesner Puppets."

Bringing back the goblins

If the connection between Hanukkah and the award-winning puppet troupe seems a stretch, the company's founder, Paul Mesner, argues otherwise. He had in fact staged a compact version of Eric Kimmel's book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins several years ago but had always longed to revisit it.

"We did a little small version of this about nine or ten years ago," Mesner says. "It was good but it was a one-person show and I let it quietly go back to rest. We didn't have the ability to do it as it needed to be done. So the first version was a sketch - a nice sketch - but it was a sketch but this is much more fleshed out."

Sights and smells

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is a folk tale about a clever man who stops in a small village on the first night of Hanukkah only to find none of the traditional sights, sounds and smells of the holiday.

"So he says, 'Ah, I'll spend the night here before I go home,'" Mesner says of the title character. "But nobody's cooking with oil. There are no latkes, he can't smell latkes. And there are no menorahs burning in the windows.

"He finds out that goblins have been haunting the synagogue and they can't get rid of them. Hershel says, 'I'm not afraid of that, I'll go up and do it.' They say, 'Good luck, if we ever see you again.' He's a trickster character but very gentle."

Selective services

Paul Mesner is not Jewish himself but says the Hanukkah show isn't his first collaboration with the Jewish community. His puppets have been integrated into services for other holidays atTempleB'naiJehudah in Overland Park, Kan.

"So it's not a straight-forward performance in any way," Mesner says. "Instead, it's puppets helping the congregants celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We work with the rabbis and the cantor and volunteers from the congregation and they help us. The puppetry we're doing is a form or worship or form of prayer that we're all participating in. So it's been an interesting journey."

Center of activity

The Jewish Community Center's Krista Blackwood hopes Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins will draw audiences from both inside and outside the faith.

"The catch phrase right now is 'You don't have to be Jewish to join,' because a Jewish Community Center is not just Jewish, it's a Community Center first and Jewish second, in a way,” says Blackwood

"But everything we do is based on Jewish values. It's easy for me to make connections to Jewish values in everything we do because Jewish values are human values. When I have a chance to take something that is significantly Jewish and make it appealing to the larger audience, like Hershel will be, I have to jump at it."

Of course, Paul Mesner Puppets are not averse to Christmas shows. The company's Nativity will be staged next month at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by PaulMesnerPuppets, November 29-December 3, 2013, Jewish Community Center, 5801 W. 115th Street, Overland Park, Kan. 913-327-8000.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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