For all the stories of Maccabees and cruses of oil, Chanukah is ultimately a holiday about family togetherness. So mused the multitalented artist Arthur Yorinks when he sat down more than a decade ago to write “The Flying Latke,” a children’s book about a Chanukah pancake that magically circumnavigates the globe. Now the tale’s play version, which sold out its run last year in Tribeca at The Flea Theater, returns to the same theater just in time for this year’s Festival of Lights.
In “The Flying Latke,” directed by Ben Kamine, a trivial argument at an extended family’s Chanukah party triggers a go-for-broke food fight, which culminates with a latke sailing out the window and causing a media frenzy when it is mistaken by the Air Force for a rocket ship from outer space.
Featuring colorful backgrounds by the Polish-Jewish-American cartoonist William Steig, the original children’s book of “The Flying Latke” is illustrated mostly by photographs, including those of well-known people like Maurice Sendak, who plays Uncle Al. (The narrator, Danny Silverstein, is represented by Amedeo Turturro, the young son of John Turturro.) While it may not have that kind of star power, the new theatrical production has a vibrant 13-member cast drawn from The Bats, the resident company of The Flea.
Yorinks, who grew up in New Hyde Park, joined a theater company in Manhattan at 16 and has worked ever since as a director, playwright and sound designer for theater, opera, dance and film. He wrote the librettos for Philip Glass’s operas, “The Juniper Tree” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He has also penned 35 children’s books, including “Harry and Lulu,” and “It Happened in Pinsk.” His 1987 book, “Hey, Al,” which is about a janitor who takes a trip to Paradise, won the Caldecott Medal for Richard Egielski’s homespun illustrations.
For “The Flying Latke,” published in 1999, Yorinks hit on a novel concept. Working with graphic designer Paul Colin, Yorinks made complex diagrams of where the actors were to stand and how they were to position their bodies to make it look as if they were interacting with each other and with the imaginary latke. It was, Yorinks recalled, “a kind of theater project from the beginning,” one that “bridged all the different fields that I worked in.”
Four years after the book came out, Yorinks was working with the Night Kitchen Theater Company, an ensemble that staged original radio plays at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Yorinks adapted “The Flying Latke,” with klezmer music and quirky sound effects, as one of those dramas. A few years later, he restaged it in New York as a benefit for a homeless shelter at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, with Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio as one of the actors. Last year’s production at the Flea was the first extended run for the play.
Yorinks views Chanukah as about “getting together with people whom you see only once a year. It’s like being in a crowd of strangers, although they’re all supposedly your relatives.” The real miracle in “The Flying Latke,” he observed, is that everyone manages to get along without killing each other, and to be, in his words, “united by the minor miracle of the latke flying out the window.”
“The Flying Latke,” which is recommended for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, runs on weekend mornings at the Flea Theater, 41 White St. Performances are on Dec. 1, 2, 8, 9, 15 and 16 at 11 a.m. For tickets, $15, visit www.theflea.org or call the box office at (212) 226-2407.