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Assing Around at the A.R.T.

By Beryl C.D. Lipton, Crimson Staff Writer

With a name like “The Donkey Show,” it should be unsurprising that an appropriate adjective to describe Diane Paulus’ inaugural production at the newly named Oberon—the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) theatrical club space—is “loose.” In the world of theater, the word might have a negative connotation, but in the world of sex, drugs, and nightclubs—well, it’s just what we like to hear.

“The Donkey Show” is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a framework into which the pimps, hos, and blow atmosphere of the Studio 54 setting fits surprisingly well. Club owner Mr. Oberon (Heather Gordon) uses his Mercury-inspired roller-skating assistant Dr. Wheelgood (Scotty Morgan)—Puck, from the original—to drug his girlfriend Tytania (Rebecca Whitehurst). The scantily-clad disco-diva then falls in love with the local duo of car wash clowns, who make “asses” of themselves while under the influence of Wheelgood’s special concoction. Similarly love-poisoned are Dmitri (Lucille Duncan) and Sander (Rebecca Whitehurst), who both fall for Helen (Erin McShane), leaving Sander’s lover Mia (Gordon) all alone. Bestiality, chaos, and disco music ensue.

However, the plot is secondary to the primary goal of Paulus’ new approach to theater at the A.R.T.: experience. “I’m interested in how we can really get to the roots of when theater had power,” she writes in her publicity material, “when it was ritual.” The “ritual” that she’s trying to capitalize on here is the idea of nights out with friends, and though clubbing itself may be a relatively new concept, it actually shares similar foundations with the origins of American theater, which was once a rowdy, sociable, exciting time for all involved.

“The Donkey Show,” co-directed by Paulus and Randy Weiner, attempts to bring those good times back, by transporting the audience into the club atmosphere that many of them left behind in the 70s—and that some unknowing theater tagalongs clearly seem to have wished stayed that way. Even before the show begins, Tytania’s glittering fairies—adapted to the more modern interpretation of the term rather than the supernatural Shakespearean conception—work to set the tone for the evening. In a style that would do Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes proud, these golden boys sparkle atop the rolling cubes set in the dance floor crowd, on which much of the action takes place, allowing the show to be appreciated from all angles. Almost naked except for shining booty shorts and eyeliner, they invite members of the crowd to dance with them as DJ Orlando Chachenski (Samson Kohanski) takes everyone back to Funkytown, or at least loosens them up for the show.

Only part of the main attraction takes place on the main stage—most notably, “the” main attraction, the donkey show itself—while the rest plays out around and throughout the crowd. The dialogue primarily consists of singing along to “We Are Family,” “Ring My Bell,” and other such hits, arranged to reflect the plotline. “The Donkey Show” is essentially one large dance party with a vague theatrical reason to keep it going, but the choreography, the movement, the blocking is such that, for the most part, it seamlessly carries through. Even as they move through the crowd in preparation for their next appearance in the spotlight, the actors keep the audience involved; “Do I look okay?” Sander asked one audience member as he rushed to the stage to meet his love Mia.

Though it may not at all resemble the theater that modern audiences are accustomed to, “The Donkey Show” demonstrates a definite grasp of the theatrical, capturing Paulus’ conception for the audience interaction and excitement to come at the A.R.T.

—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at blipton@fas.harvard.edu.

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