Singing a different tune than ‘Christmas Carol’

From the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” to the Walnut Street Theater’s “A Christmas Carol,” there are lots of holiday chestnuts to enjoy.

The Philadelphia theater scene is also exploring alternative holiday fare.

At a storefront theater in Kensington, the Walking Fish company is rehearsing “Un Viaje–A Christmas Journey.” The play tells the story of a recently divorced mother in Philadelphia who takes her two kids to an unnamed Latin American country to spend Christmas with her mother, played by a man wearing a dress.

“In my head, I thought I was going to play the father. I’m the dad–that’s the conflict,” said actor Victor Rodriguez. “I came in to read and she said ‘Oh, no, you’ll be playing the abuela (grandmother)!”

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Using songs and dialogue that flip between English and Spanish, the play toggles stories about Santa Claus and about the Three Kings–many Latin-American countries celebrate Jan. 6 to mark the day the wise men are said to have arrived at the manger where Jesus lay.

“Sometimes you can blend the two together,” said Rodriguez, who was raised in the U.S. by Cuban and Colombian parents.

“In my household, we had the manger and the Christmas tree. In Miami, they have a Three Kings Day parade, and celebrate Christmas,” he said.

The modest production has an ambitious goal: to bring Latinos in Philadelphia to theater, generally. Many Latino people are separated from the city’s theatrical offerings by economics, language, and cultural gaps.

“I’m so excited to explore how successful bilingual theater will be in this city,” said Anjoli Santiago, who wrote the script with Walking Fish director Michelle Paul. “A lot of people say it can’t be done, but we’re doing it.”

 Hanukkah encounter with goblins

In South Philadelphia, another holiday play is in rehearsal–a play about Hanukkah, a holiday not known for its theatrical successes.

“I have a 13-year-old stepdaughter whom I’ve been with since she was 4,” said playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger. “Every year there are a million “Christmas Carols”–we’ve been to a couple Hanukkah shows, but none have been particularly strong.”

For two years Goldfinger has been collaborating with Gas and Electric Arts to buck that trend. They have developed a stage version of the popular picture book by Eric Kimmel, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”

The story, on paper, follows Jewish trickster Herschel as he faces down a band of goblins bent on fouling Hanukkah celebrations in a hapless shtetl.

The book is only 30 pages long, and mostly pictures. So, like in some recent movies (“Where the Wild Things Are” and “Jumanji”), the company had to invent content to fill out the story into a two-hour experience.

“As we translate the story into one that will hold water on stage, we had to investigate things like the history of shtetls, we’ve looked into Chagall, I’ve always heard klezmer music,” said director Lisa Jo Epstein. “What we’ve also done is question, why is the story of Hanukkah relevant to tweens and middle-schoolers today?”

The play has a modern-day framing device. A young girl in 2011 magically is transported–like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”–to that eastern-European shtetl, where she becomes the sidekick to Hershel, who is not pleased with his new partner.

Epstein does not want this to be a one-off. After two years of development, working with writers, choreographers, puppet designers, musicians, and a set that doubles as a jungle gym, she wants this show to be a perennial like “A Christmas Carol,” only Jewish.

“Why do we use theater at the holiday time? What’s the meaning?” says Epstein. “The thing that ‘Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ shares with ‘The Christmas Carol’ is the reminder that we need to hold onto light in a time of darkness. December is the darkest time of the year.”

“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” opens Dec. 20, but Epstein has already heard from Jewish theater companies in Indiana and Ohio with script requests.

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