ATJT's 'Moonwatcher' delivers a riotous romp through Chelm
Need to get away from all those dancing Nutcrackers and Santas and reindeer with noses that glow in the dark? Consider Chelm. You can book passage through A Traveling Jewish Theatre and be there and back in a scant hour and a half. Bring the family. The kids will love it, not to mention Bubbe and Zayde.
The foolishness of the people of Chelm, a mythical hamlet somewhere in the Poland of the last century, knows no beginning or end. Well, not exactly. The beginning was in the wonderful Chelm stories of Sholem Aleichem. As for the end, let's hope it won't be anytime soon.
"Moonwatcher: A New Tale of Chelm for Chanukah," the first-ever family show at A Traveling Jewish Theatre, augments the Chelm canon. Inspired by the original stories, it is an all-new tale, penned by artistic director Aaron Davidman, co-founder and longtime ensemble member Corey Fischer and actor Eric Rhys Miller, who appears in the show.
It concerns the orphan Menasha (sad-faced Moshe Cohen, a bona fide clown), who was left on the rabbi's doorstep and grew up as a loner -- mute to boot. One night, wandering lost in the marshes and bogs that surround the shtetl, the boy falls in love with the moon. He courts her with a drink of water, a flower and a song played on his harmonica. In response, she promises him her favor.
So attuned to the moon is he that the town awards Menasha the job of official Moonwatcher. Keeper of the calendar, it is he who proclaims Rosh Chodesh, Rosh Hashanah and all the other holidays when they come around. But, as he grows up, the importance of his mathematical calculations and his preoccupation with keeping time take precedence over his passion and the moon withdraws herself from him.
Such a calamity never before befell the good folk of Chelm -- no strangers to calamity, it must be told. It's almost Chanukah but, without the correct time, the holiday can't happen (shades of the Grinch). They search high and low for the absent orb and, in a riotous romp through the audience, produce little white balls, balloons and all manner of replacements. Then, the owner of the inn (Joan Mankin) has a brilliant idea (the Chelmniks are full of brilliant ideas). They should build a mechanical clock with the face of the moon. Not only will it tell them the time but it also will serve as an attraction to boost the lagging tourist industry.
But such a clock is unacceptable to Menasha. He destroys it and, as a reward for his faithfulness, the moon reappears.
A simple story but wondrously told, with original music by Daniel Hoffman that ranges from klezmer to down-and-dirty blues. Fantastic puppets and masks are by Berkeley artist Annie Hallat, as is the charming set, a ramshackle house and the forest outside, both movable and both multifunctional. The energetic quartet of actors includes, in addition to Mankin, Miller and Cohen, young Teana David who doubles as the moon and a hapless yeshiva student.
There's music and dancing, a great deal of physical comedy, audience participation, a human menorah and a bit of bathroom humor. Oh, and juggling -- a whole lot of juggling. Sounds like kid stuff but, take it from me, the adults in the audience were laughing pretty hard as well. There even are topical references, this being a new tale of Chelm after all. At one point, when the cash-strapped citizenry considers going to war with neighboring Yehupitz (because wars always fill the coffers), the reason is that the
adjacent shtetl is rumored to be working on weapons of "mass aggravation." Unfortunately, the Chelmniks traded all their weapons the previous Chanukah for a bunch of sour cream to go with the latkes, so the plan is scrapped.
The whole thing is a sometimes-sophisticated, sometimes-slapstick hoot, with quite a bit of Judaica gently inserted into the mix to illustrate that Jewish education really can be fun. If there is one quibble, it might be that David's "Moon Song," which she warbles adequately enough, goes on a bit too long and is repeated later in the show. But hey, what do you want, the moon?
"Moonwatcher: A New Tale of Chelm for Chanukah" is performed at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 29 at A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F. Tickets: $25 general, $20 seniors, $12.50 students. Information: (415) 399-1809 or www.atjt.com