JOLIET – Gnome is where the heart is.
“That’s been the message of this show over the years, and it relates to [everyone] – kindness is better than being a jerk,” said Reg McReynolds, one of the directors of the “Festival of Gnomes” that was presented Saturday and Sunday at Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park in Joliet.
Limacher and the late Georgiann Goodson began staging the nondenominational holiday show in 1976.
“The program is geared to children,” Goodson told The Herald-News in 1978.
Like several other cast members, McReynolds started performing in the show more than 30 years ago.
“I did it as a kid, then I didn’t for a few years before I came back to it as an adult. There are cast members who came to see the show when they were children, and there are a lot of former cast members in the audience each year,” McReynolds said.
The show also has several second- and third-generation cast members, and the audience has many parents who saw the show when they were younger and now are bringing their own children.
The 90-minute show presents short vignettes of what life is like for the magical little creatures. Cast members can switch from gnome to narrator to troll to forest animal to hunter within a few minutes.
Audience members learned what happens when a troll captures a gnome and observed the gnome wedding rites, which bear a strong resemblance to “The Chicken Dance.” According to gnome history, the Alaskan Gold Rush turned out to be the result of a friendship between a psychic otter and a gnome who always felt too cold.
“It’s never been the exact same show. It’s a robust script, but there’s some ad lib. There are few skits we do every year, but others will switch in and out,” McReynolds said.
Among the perennial characters are Kostja, the naughty gnome played by McReynolds this year, and Snotgurgle, an evil troll portrayed by Kevin Healy. Veteran audience members smiled as Snotgurgle began stalking through the audience and spraying silly string as if it were mucus.
“It got me,” one young audience member announced with satisfaction.
“Snotgurgle is 2,000 years old,” a narrator said from the stage.
“And I’m still on my parents’ health insurance,” the troll shouted from the back of the audience.
Auditions for the Festival of Gnomes are held in late September and rehearsals begin in mid-October. But McReynolds noted live theatre requires flexibility. Some things were seen for the first time Saturday afternoon because one cast member broke her foot two nights earlier.
“No performance is ever the same,” he repeated. “We have to cover some lines and change some blocking.”
The set also changes for each Festival. Technical Director Eric Moniger has about two weeks to put it together each year, but he keeps gnomes in mind year round.
“If there’s a piece or a platform from another show that can fit in, I’ll hold on to that and see if we can use it,” he said. This year’s stories took gnomes from the frozen north to the darkest caverns to the middle of a firepit.
Moniger has been in the gnome show more than 25 years.
“There are some newcomers [this year] just like when I started and I made friends I have to this day,” he said. “It’s a fun pastime.”