Live theater is always a treat. The excitement of watching a story unfold on the stage in real time is a thrill that can’t be replicated by watching a film. There’s the shared-experience aspect among the audience, and since no two performances are the same, the crowd actually influences and becomes a part of the show.
The effect is amplified when that up-close and personal experience is taken one step further, and the audience has the chance to participate in a discussion with the playwright and actors.
That’s exactly what the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse provides on a weekly basis throughout the summer. Their Monday Night Special series presents readings of new plays — some of which are being presented for the first time — followed by Q & A sessions with cast and crew.
“I think it’s been a fascinating mix of plays,” says Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo, referring to this summer’s lineup. “Every one has been packed, and the plays have elicited the most interesting intellectual conversations.”
This past Monday’s show was no exception. A full house got the chance to watch a cast of very talented actors play out an interesting historical event that most in the audience previously knew little about. “Coco at the Ritz,” a new play by Gioia Diliberto, centers on the famed designer Coco Chanel and her actions during WWII in occupied France.
Apparently, Chanel not only stuck around Paris, enjoying the same privileged lifestyle she had become accustomed to, but she befriended and/or did business with a number of top-ranking Nazi officials. When called before a member of the French Forces of the Interior after the war, Chanel claims ignorance and attempts to downplay her involvement with the occupiers. The interrogation scenes alternate with flashback sequences where she is shown interacting with her renowned artist friends before the war, and scenes where she is confronted by the ghost of writer Max Jacobs, whom she has betrayed. Throughout, Chanel is portrayed as a vain, selfish, pushy woman who chooses to ignore the suffering and injustice around her.
“Resistance or collaboration” the clearly disgusted interrogator keeps barking at Chanel, as she tries to justify what she sees as her innocent dealings with the Nazis. There are only two roles one could have played in the eyes of the resistance leader — no neutrality, no gray area.
And the gray area is exactly what the audience addressed in the post-performance talk.
A lively postshow discussion with cast, director, and playwright found some in the audience willing to concede sympathy for Chanel as someone who was just doing what she had to to survive. However, the play seemed to indicate that the designer could have relocated to the countryside and remained safely away from the occupiers. Instead she lived at the glamorous Ritz hotel, had an affair with a German spy, and even sold a few dresses and bottles of perfume to the enemy. Pretty unforgivable behavior, it would seem.
Audience members discussed the issues of culpability, integrity, moral choices, and how the behavior of even good people can be unpredictable in extreme situations.
As with all of the Monday Night Specials, the evening provided both entertainment and stimulating conversation. Vineyard audiences have one last chance to enjoy this experience on August 31, as the Playhouse presents its final Monday Night Special of the season. In “The Shell Collection,” by accomplished playwright Wendy Kesselman (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” “My Sister in This House”), two 12-year-old girls share an idyllic summer vacation. But their carefree days and childish pleasures are swept aside when they are confronted by a situation that threatens both their friendship and the innocence of childhood.
“It’s a very powerful play,” says Ms. Munafo, who will direct the reading. “It’s very interesting. On the surface it seems like a sweet little play about childhood friendship, but in the end a dark secret is revealed.”
Sounds like good fodder for discussion. Check out the play and, if you are so inclined, join in the post-performance conversation with Ms. Kesselman and Ms. Munafo.
“The Shell Collection,” a reading of a new play by Wendy Kesselman. Monday, August 31, at 7:30 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online at vineyardplayhouse.org.