The play’s the thing at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

An image from the 1974 Island Theatre Workshop production of "The Madwoman of Chaillot." — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Entering the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s latest exhibit, you might think that the collection dates back further than the 100 years indicated by the title. The first collection that greets the eye includes a women’s pilgrim costume, a fringed leather tunic, and some photos of folks who look like they just stepped off the Mayflower.

However, on closer inspection, one can see that the thin cotton of the brown-and-white Puritan style dress could hardly withstand a cold New England winter and the leather piece looks suspiciously more like a Halloween costume than an authentic Native-American garment.

That’s because the history that the museum is honoring with the exhibit is that of theater — the world of storytelling, illusion, entertainment, and ceremony — and the display that introduces the show, “Showtime: 100 Years of Theater on Martha’s Vineyard,” includes artifacts from historical pageants of 1911 and 1912.

“We think the pageants work really well in talking about the early roots of theater on the Vineyard,” said assistant curator Anna Carringer. “People were much more civic minded at that time, but it was all about the community getting together to put on a show.” The pageants were intended to present, “a somewhat skewed, not always accurate, but well-intentioned history of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Along with the questionable authenticity of the Wampanoag costume, in one of the photos, Thomas Mayhew is portrayed, inexplicably, by an actor in Scottish Highland garb. “They probably used whatever they had on hand,” said Ms. Carringer.

There’s certainly another level of sophistication in evidence in the groupings from other theatrical organizations represented in the exhibit. Included are a remarkable wood nymph dress and a papier mache donkey’s head from a Vineyard Playhouse (1982-present) production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream;” an elaborate set design — represented both by the original drawing and a performance photo — from the Vineyard Players’ production of “Man of La Mancha;” and a very professional playbill from the Rice Playhouse featuring a profile of one of the visiting stars, complete with a classic 1920s style cover photo.

Island Theatre Workshop (1968-present) is represented visually by a collection of head pieces from Gilbert and Sullivan productions, including a powdered wig — cleverly constructed from a bath towel — from “Trial by Jury,” a British royal guardsman’s hat from “Iolanthe,” and a sailor’s cap from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Lee Fierro, longtime artistic director of ITW is among those whose brief audio interview clips bring the Island’s theater history to life.

Oral history curator Linsey Lee adds another dimension to the exhibit with interviews of some of those who played a part in the Vineyard’s rich theatrical history. Among a handful of audio clips available to guests are recorded interviews with one of the directors of the famed Rice Playhouse, an East Chop institution that staged summer productions with equity actors from New York from 1924 until 1955.

A student at the theater’s Phidela Rice School of Elocution is another of the interviewees.

And Susan Klein and Duncan Ross talk about the Vineyard Players, a group founded by Ithaca College theater students that performed on the Island in the 60s and 70s at the old Oak Bluffs School.

Shearer Summer Theater

The longest of the oral histories, accompanied in video form by marvelous contemporary pictures, documents the lesser-known Shearer Summer Theater. Olive Tomlinson, niece of the theater’s founder and director, Liz White, narrates the story of the African-American Oak Bluffs theater company that performed outdoor productions at a gingerbread house in Oak Bluffs through the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Ms. White, the granddaughter of Charles Shearer of the historic Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs, was a dresser on Broadway who worked with the likes of Judy Garland, Marlena Dietrich, and Brenda Vaccaro. She purchased a unique double cottage in the Highlands area of Oak Bluffs specifically to stage productions, and she induced many of her visiting theater friends to participate in a summer series. The group presented Shakespeare, “West Side Story,” and a number of classic and contemporary comedies and dramas with a professional flair in everything from sets to costumes.

In the 60s, Ms. White undertook the considerable challenge of turning her production of “Othello” into a feature-length film — a project that would be 20 years in the making. The film, featuring future Hollywood star Yaphet Kotto in the lead, and an all African-American cast, will be screened by the museum in August for the first time on the Island since the 80s.

Current theaters

Other exhibit related events include a number of performances by local theater groups. Shakespeare for the Masses will present a short work at the museum’s summer opening reception on June 15, and a few performances at the Edgartown lighthouse over the summer. The Vineyard Playhouse will produce a series of plays based on local history, written by Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo.

Satellite exhibits are hosted by a couple of local theater organizations including Island Theatre Workshop, which will honor their 45-year history with a display at their new office/studio on Music Street, West Tisbury. The museum also provides guests with a map of current and past Island theater locations that can be used, with a cell phone, for a self-guided tour.

Because of the limited size of the exhibit space, Ms. Carringer notes that not every Vineyard theater related group could be included, but others, such as The Yard, have been invited to contribute photos to a rotating digital wall display. The Yard will also host a satellite exhibit at their space in Chilmark.

The museum’s one-room exhibit concludes with a wonderful picture of Katharine Cornell, one of the greatest American stage actresses of the 20th century, who kept a summer home on the Vineyard where she died in 1973. Below the elegantly posed photo is the “Please do not Disturb” sign from Ms. Cornell’s Broadway dressing room. Appropriately, on the other side of that memorial wall is a scene similar to the one once guarded by that sign.

The Vineyard Playhouse has donated a dressing table with illuminated mirror to the museum’s permanent collection. In an effort to introduce more interactive exhibits to their collections, the museum staff has fitted out the vanity’s corner with hats, boas, and other dress-up items so that guests can enjoy — hands-on — the magic of the theater.

“Showtime: 100 Years of Theater on Martha’s Vineyard,” May 26 to April 20, 2013. A private preview and reception will take place on Friday, May 25, from 5 to 7 pm. Free, museum members only.; 508-627-4441.

Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs will host a new show called the Art of Costume Design at their Virginia Weston Besse Gallery from Sunday, May 27, through June 6. The show, curated by The Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Playhouse. The opening reception is this Sunday, May 27, from 4 to 6 pm.