Around this time of year, the vast majority of holiday entertainment — Nutcrackers both Victorian and burlesque; innumerable A Christmas Carols; even the rogue Sedaris debauchery of The Santaland Diaries — is some sort of riff on a holiday that's at least nominally Christian. If you're hankering for something less goyische, schlep on over to Westbrook, where Acorn Productions presents three short plays about Eastern European Jewish life in the last century. In Acorn's intimate new Studio Theater (where they've just received a $3000 grant from the Rines/Thompson Fund), Harlan Baker directs a triptych of plays written in the spirit of Sholom Aleichem, the pen name for Ukrainian-born Salomon Rabinovich. The Yiddish writer wrote of and for the common folk; his stories of "Tevye the Milkman" eventually wound up as the basis for a little play called Fiddler on the Roof.
The first of the plays, which are introduced by a bookseller full of wise words (Sven Johnson), is the comic A Tale of Chelm. This comedy of mental errors might recall Neil Simon's Fools: Due to a complicated origin myth (nicely narrated by the bookseller and Gail Wartell's entertainingly klatschy angel, named Rochele) the inhabitants of this village are fated to be eternally extremely good-natured but a few cards short of a deck. Melamed, a teacher (Hal Cohen), has a history of being diverted from the shopping instructions of his wife Rifkele (Dixie Weisman, with a pleasant mix of befuddlement and exasperation). Once, he brought her home a pitcher of water instead of a hen; she now wants him to procure a milking goat. The script is filled with the bounce, wit, and pranks of classic Jewish punchlines, and cast's pacing is quick and sharp. "Does milk come from a billy goat?" asks Melamed, taking offense to his wife's wariness about his ability to come home with a female goat. Rifkele pricelessly responds, "Does a pitcher of water lay eggs?"
Pathos descends in the melodramatic second tale, Bonche Schweig. The main character of the title, an innocent, mute loser who's been oppressed all his life, and whose last name means "the Silent"(a child-faced Hal Cohen), dies and is brought before a court of angels headed up by Presiding Angel April Singley. The smug, sexy, perfectly coiffed Prosecuting Angel (Julia Reddy, deliciously) is all set to get his ass nailed, and the Defending Angel (earnest Karen Ball), running late and wrinkled, does not initially look like she's got the wherewithal to get him off. She does, however, have something more important that legal smarts: the truth of Bonche Schweig's life, a story of good spirit in the face of injustice.
The show's final story looks at Jewish culture with a more acute and literal view of the systematic oppression it has weathered. The High School tells of Moishe (Josh Cohen), only son of shopkeeper Aaron and his wife Hannah (Joshua Brassard and Suzanne Lowell, in an excellent comedic but equally nuanced portrayal of married conflict and love). Moishe yearns to become a scholar at the Gymnasium, the high school. This is a lot more complicated than staggering into Deering High in Slayer pajamas after sleeping through eighth grade. Not only are the entrance exams prohibitively difficult, but there are quotas: In Moishe's town, only two Jews are admitted each term. Smart but long-suffering housewife Hannah is Moishe's champion; Aaron, who starts off as a sort of comic philistine and chauvinist, in Brassard's hands undergoes an admirable and convincing conversion.