Upon entering “Oberon,” the American Repertory Theatre’s theatrical club space, we quickly meet its namesake, the ringmaster of the drugs, sex and madness who sends the rest of the cast spiraling and gyrating out of control in The Donkey Show. Mr. Oberon is center ring controlling everything in this disco dancing adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a sort of Studio 54 meets the circus. The audience halts mid-drink or dance step to gasp in awe at the impressive choreography, acrobatics and ribbon dancing performed all around.
Glitter and sequins dominate the décor, costumes, and even the air in the club; everywhere you turn there’s more glam for gawking. Tytania’s fabulous fairy quartet of sexy male dancers is clad only in sequined hot pants, glitter and makeup. They mount the stage, the bar, even the audience members that they pull up to share the dance platforms. The DJ, like the bouncers, dons an open chest, gold chains and yellow tinted sunglasses, and blasts ‘Play That Funky Music” as Helen chases Dimitri (played by Lucille Duncan) across the dance floor. Mr. Oberon gets friendly with the ladies in the crowd and the pursed-lipped Tytania looks on. The Donkey Show, directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner (Weiner also conceived this baby) offers an immensely entertaining night of music, dancing, singing and acrobatics all wrapped up in a well-choreographed bundle of joy.
There are but few lines in this very physical production, and each bit of dialogue quickly leads into a tightly choreographed song and dance routine that often delves into slapstick. Original 70’s music blares and the performers sing along whenever their passion draws them to it. It’s an interesting divergence from a typical musical, but it works very well once we pick up our pace to meet the actors. Heather Gordon as Mia shines as she tries to woo back her Sander (Rebecca Whitehurst) with a bit a karaoke, revealing frilly panties while drunkenly butchering a song—a bottle in each fist. Erin McShane as Helen is hilarious and uses physical comedy as she plays out the role of the unrequited lover. When standard practices of dedicating songs and seductively offering cherries out of her drink do nothing to spark interest in her Dimitri, McShane wails out her case through Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and we, cringing with laughter, cheer her on.
Scotty Morgan is this production’s “Puck,” here called Dr. Wheelgood. Morgan brings to mind the dark side of this debauchery as he tempts dancers into his glowing disco room for a snort or two of fairy dust before sending them on their randy way. There is something sinister and magnetic about his silent mischief and his agile roller acrobatics as he mutely enjoys the havoc he creates. The same sense of impressed wonder and wariness we offer Dr. Wheelgood accompanies every sensual move of Tytania, played by Rebecca Whitehurst. Tytania’s costume, which consists of butterfly pasties, knee high boots and blue hot pants that match her fairies, leaves little to the imagination, yet makes her all the more mysterious and untouchable.
The creative team, consisting of Scott Pask for scenic design, David C. Woolard for costume design, Evan Morris on lighting and David Remedios on sound deserves shared applause for an overwhelming audio and visual experience. Eumir Deodato performs Richard Strauss’ orchestral piece, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” giving each drugged transformation the otherworldly sensation of 2001 A Space Odyssey (also calling to mind Peter Sellers in Being There). Perhaps slightly out of tune are the Vinnies, who share the role of Bottom. It’s here the magic of the production slightly subsides. Though their braying is uproarious, it seems the quick costume change works against the Vinnies, and the necessary suspension of disbelief is not quite enough to make this crouching pair seem like a donkey.
Aside from Dr. Wheelgood and the fairy escorts, all the main roles are played by women, which accentuates the parody of their super sexualized male characters. Paulus and Weiner offer some hilarious dance club adaptations of Shakespeare’s themes. The Vinnies, for example, are lower class rude mechanicals, but are really no more rude than the other human characters. They do, however, interrupt their own song with gruff homophobic comments. Dr. Wheelgood’s remedy for the lovers’ confused affections looks suspiciously like giant roofies. And Tytania’s love for an ass takes on a hilarious, if not cringe-worthy, literal turn.
The Donkey Show invites you into a fantastic taboo-free wonderland. The audience is so enthralled they add their own soundtrack of cheering and catcalling to the production. This show thrives on taking obscenity far—very far—and with every cheeky nipple flash, every arm lick, and every (dare I say) crotch dive, the audience only demands more. And this production complies beyond all measure, but you’ll have to go to find out why this extravaganza is called, The Donkey Show.
The Donkey Show runs through October 31, 2009 at The American Repertory Theater, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Tickets are $25 - $49. Reservations and information can be found at americanrepertorytheater.org