When she was asked to direct The Chanukah Guest for the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in 2014, Candace Barrett Birk was thrilled at the opportunity to work with children again. “I was the director at the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles. I haven’t done it here, so this was a chance to revisit that territory,” she says.
The Chanukah Guest is back for another go-round in 2015, with Birk again in charge of directing.
“This year’s production is the same script. We tweaked things because of what we learned last year. The cast is new. That makes for a new production just by what they bring to it,” Birk says.
Jenna Zark adapted Erik A. Kimmel’s book for the seasonal show, which is aimed primarily at the preschool lot. The play looks at the holiday from a distinctly Russian perspective, as a young boy and his grandmother have an unexpected visitor — a bear, who they mistake for the visiting rabbi — on the celebration’s first night.
“One of the things that struck me was that there are a lot of different cultures that have have a celebration of light and dark at this time of the year. There’s a lot of that here. We have the cozy, warm cottage that is surrounded by the dark and mysterious, deep dark Russian woods,” Birk says. “We often find ourselves in a reflective place at this time of the year. There is the new growth. All of that is embedded in the script.”
Care has to be given when presenting a show to such young audiences. It’s entirely possible that the person watching the play is seeing their first bit of theater. To that end, Birk and the company have worked to make the theater space as inviting as possible.
“There is a pre-show piece where we show them what actors do before the show. We show them how we test lights and how sound travels around the theater,” Birk says. “It gives them some degree of comfort in this alien environment.”
Birk gives a lot of credit to the trio of actors. “All of them are extremely talented and generous of spirit,” she says.
Rehearsals for the production started before Thanksgiving, so there was a break during the middle of the process. “I spent the week in Washington, D.C., as part of a team decorating the White House,” Birk says, noting that the company spent the time with their families or out of town.
“Everyone worked on their own, and they were totally ready to go when we came back. They are generous and thoughtful and committed artists,” Birk says.
Performing for children is a particular challenge. “We have to be highly focused and highly committed to the telling of the story in the clearest possible way; so there is no confusion and the children know where to look and what to listen to,” Birk says.
Though the play offers some of the history and traditions of Chanukah, it is really “about the spirit of Chanukah and the spirit of generosity and kindness. The crux of the story is about that spirit and the kind of miracle we can notice if we just keep our eyes open and our hearts generous,” Birk says.
IF YOU GO
The Chanukah Guest
Through Dec. 22; public performance 1 p.m. Sunday
Highland Park Community Center
1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651-647-4315 or visit online.