Theatre : Playhouse Monday Night Specials
Over the past 10 years, The Vineyard Playhouse's Tuesday through Friday summer schedule has been creatively enhanced by the addition of its one-of-a-kind Monday Night Specials performances.
The Monday night performances have become so popular that the Playhouse booked several on Sunday this summer, and may be offering season tickets to the series next year. The shows are often sold out, whether the actors include well-known movie or stage stars or talented local actors.
The varied program on Monday, always original and provocative, features readings rather than fully staged productions. The performances emphasize new work or work-in-progress of both new and established writers.
"It's an intimate experience, and a very friendly one," says Associate Artistic Director Joann Green Breuer, whose new play, "Notes from the Front," was performed this past Monday. She explains that because the Monday Night Specials are readings, members of the audience can imagine the scenery and staging as part of the experience.
"Notes from the Front" is a blend of popular songs from World War I and soldiers' voices adapted from "Company K," a WWI novel by William March. Published in 1933, the novel was out of print for 60 years before its recent reissue. Ms. Breuer discovered it while browsing in a bookstore. Calling it the first American novel to deal realistically with men in combat, she felt compelled to turn it into a play.
After the reading, actors, director and author often come back onstage to answer questions from the audience. By offering their reactions and suggestions, audience members can participate in the creative process. The camaraderie between the theatre company and the audience continues downstairs on Monday Night Specials at a post-production wine and cheese reception.
This week on Monday night, one member of the audience told Ms. Breuer how important she thought the play's music was. American involvement in WWI lasted 18 months, she added, but she couldn't think of a single popular song inspired by the five-year Iraq war.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"This is a moment in America when we are involved in a political campaign, and are at war in several places," Ms. Breuer says. "Any relationship between the U.S.'s place in the world today and this play is purely intentional." The author didn't want to write a play about current events, however, and the songs liven the somber mood of the novel excerpts. The experience, she says, "can change the way you see the world."
"We get to try something we wouldn't dare do for a long run, something experimental," Ms. Breuer says. As is often the case, several Monday night slots this summer are still open. The flexible schedule allows a playwright or performer who is still at work on new material to be added to the schedule at the last minute.
Like so much regional theatre, the Playhouse lives a hand-to-mouth existence. Two Island patrons, Caroline Sharpe of Edgartown and Doug Liman of Chilmark (through the Liman Foundation), have helped jump-start the Specials and turn them into a regular series. "It breaks my heart to see the theatre struggle financially," Ms. Sharpe says. "The Monday Night Specials are a very important component to the artistic heartbeat of the Island."
Both are actively involved in the arts. Ms. Sharpe, a playwright, screenplay writer, composer and pianist, recently released her first CD. Mr. Liman, the director of Hollywood films like "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," released "Jumper" earlier this year.
Calling M.J. Munafo "phenomenal," Mr. Liman suggests the Monday Night Specials work because of the Artistic Director's talent. He points out that the Specials are part of what makes the Playhouse not only viable, but relevant. "It's such an amazing forum," he says. "It's one of the highlights of my summer."
This season's roster includes a new musical for children by New York playwright Anne Washburn; a new play by monologist Richard Hoehler; a series of sketches by Vineyard regular Robert Brustein; and a one-woman show by Jenny Allen Feiffer, another Vineyard regular, directed by James Lapine. What you see on Monday night may be the first version of a Broadway hit, or the kind of radical theatre experience that doesn't come around again.
Brooks Robards reviews art, film, books, and theater for The Times.