Talkin' Broadway reviews The Chanukah Guest

The Chanukah Guest
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has added a new Chanukah-themed work to the repertoire of holiday theater offerings by commissioning this world premiere production of The Chanukah Guest. This delightful play, based on Eric A. Kimmel's picture book of the same name, is especially suited for young children, but easily enjoyed by their older family members as well.

The Chanukah Guest, set in 19th century Russia, very much has the feel of a folktale. Bubba Brayna (Grandmother, in Yiddish) lives alone in a cottage deep in the woods outside of the shtetl. Though her sight and hearing are failing badly, she can still prepare the Chanukah potato latkes for which she is famous throughout the shtetl, with the help of her adoring grandson David. She sends David to help the Rabbi Yossi, who is coming to visit, find his way through the woods. While David is gone, a roaming bear is lured by the aroma of the latkes, devouring them all. Bubba Brayna mistakes the bear for the Rabbi, and treats him as an honored guest, in spite of his poor manners. When Rabbi Yossi shows up, confusion and hilarity ensue, until all is happily straightened out.

The story offers its audience several themes. One is to explain the basic tenets of Chanukah, including the symbolism of lighting the menorah for eight nights, and of the oil used to cook the latkes. Another theme is the intergenerational love between a grandmother and grandson, presented with great tenderness. There is also the theme of acceptance, as Bubba Brayna accepts the rabbi (who is actually a bear) with all of his bad manners and growly speech, and of generosity in Bubba's willingness to share with everyone, even her unorthodox visitor.

The story is told with great humor that is accessible to young audiences—I saw the show in the company of 90 first graders—but can be appreciated by older children and adults. The bear is presented as a non-threatening, playful character, who seems as puzzled by Bubba Brayna and her hospitality toward him, as she is by her unusually behaving guest.

Joanna Harmon, on stage throughout, sets a warm and embracing tone as the down-to-earth and loving Bubba Brayna. She uses the Jewish-Russian accent of an aged woman to affect a voice that is both calming and authoritative. Skylar Nowinski plays the dual role of the bear and Rabbi Yossi. As the bear, his speech is limited to grunts and growls (though he does manage to growl out some understandable words, to humorous affect). When he returns as the rabbi, his fur coat, his speech and posture resemble the bear so much that one can believe it possible a badly near-sighted, going-deaf grandmother might mistake the two. As David, 6th grader James Pratt has a strong presence, making his feelings of both love for and exasperation with his grandmother completely believable.

Audience participation is encouraged, with two audience members brought on stage to take part in a dance, audience members joining in to sing a Hanukkah song, and having a key role in producing a recurring sound effect throughout the show. Noteworthy to this adult was that the children—ages 5 – 7—in the audience, never missed their cue to produce the sound effect, indicating the degree to which the story held their attention. Children called out, giddy delight in their voice, to warn Bubba Brayna about the bear and at other moments. In this setting, these calls were not a distraction from, but an enhancement to the show. The story was seeping into their consciousness, and they were becoming part of the story.

On our bus ride back to school after their performance, I polled the first graders on how they liked the show—a lot, a little, or not at all. Almost all of them said "A lot!" many embellishing with terms like "A mega-lot!" The teachers and parent chaperones were likewise unanimous in praising the show.

The Chanukah Guest is being performed primarily during the school day to school groups. However, there are two scheduled "family performances" which offer an opportunity for other members of the public to experience this rich and heartfelt production, which is sure to be a return visitor in future holiday seasons in the Twin Cities, and in other communities as they discover what a little gem of a show it is.

The Chanukah Guest continues through December 21, 2014, at the Hillcrest Center Theatre, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Weekday performances at 9:45 and 11:45 am, call 651-647- 4315. Family performances Dec. 20, 2014 at 7:00 PM and Dec. 21, 2014 at 1:00 PM. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org. All tickets are $17.00.

Written by Jenna Zark; Based on the book by Eric A. Kimmel; Director: Candace Barrett Birk; Scenic Designer: Kirby Moore; Costume Designer: Barb Portinga; Lighting Designer: Paul Epton; Sound Designer: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Kelli Tucker

Cast: Joanna Harmon (Bubba Brayna) Skyler Nowinski (Rabbi Yossi/Bear), James Pratt (David)

Arthur Dorman