Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

The Donkey Show
American Repertory Theater

Tom Fish, Cameron Oro, Mike Heslin
and Eric Shane

You have to see it to believe it. American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane Paulus has flipped the venerable company on its ear with her debut production of The Donkey Show, the Off-Broadway hit that ran for six years in New York and has toured major cities in Europe and South Korea. The former Zero Arrow cabaret-style club has been transformed into Oberon, featuring limited table seating, a spacious dance floor, walk-up bar and a deejay scanning the crowd from his high perch. A giant mirror ball and numerous colored spotlights cast a rainbow swirl over the scene of pulsating disco music and frenetic dancing by audience and performers alike. If you like your theater interactive, this one's for you.

The creation of Paulus's husband Randy Weiner and co-directed by the couple, The Donkey Show reimagines William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a 1970s disco. The major characters from Dream are the club's owner Mr. Oberon (Heather Gordon), his disco-diva girlfriend Tytania (Rebecca Whitehurst) and Dr. Wheelgood, Puck on roller skates (Scotty Morgan). Mr. O's entourage includes Steve-O, the bouncer (Steven James DeMarco) and DJ Orlando Chachenski (Samson Kohanski), while Tytania is usually surrounded and supported by her four gorgeous fairies—Mustard Seed (Mike Heslin), Cob Web (Cameron Oro), Moth (Tom Fish) and Peaseblossom (Eric Johnson)—who double as energetic go-go dancers and set movers.

The audience and remaining cast members are patrons of Club Oberon who intermingle on the dance floor. Helen (Erin McShane) is in love with Dimitri (Lucille Duncan), but he wants no part of her and is smitten with Mia (Gordon), the beloved of Sander (Whitehurst) who, in turn, lusts for Helen. Add to the mix the two rude mechanics both named Vinnie (played by Duncan and McShane wearing deliciously ridiculous towering Afro wigs) who lust for Tytania and get their chance with her, in a manner of speaking. If you are familiar with Shakespeare's plot, be ready for certain liberties that are taken and understand that not a word of his language is spoken. If this is your introduction to the bard's beloved comedy, you'll get the gist and still be wildly entertained as the story unfolds through the characters singing along with actual songs of the '70s. As in Mamma Mia!, the musical choices fit the action surprisingly well, with such selections as "Ring My Bell," "Stayin' Alive," "Car Wash," "We Are Family," "Never Knew Love Like This Before" and "Last Dance" by Boston's own Donna Summer.

The narrative is somewhat thin, but The Donkey Show is more about the spectacle and does not disappoint on that front. Judging from audience reaction, they get a high that comes more from being part of the show than from the nearby cash bar or Oberon's oversized syringe. During the thirty or so minutes between the opening of the doors and the official "curtain," those who hold tickets for the floor begin to party in earnest, men and women similarly clambering onto the large, moveable cubes to have a go with the bare-chested go-go boys in their miniscule short shorts. The fairies are not the only ones showing a significant amount of skin (consider Tytania's butterfly pasties), but even the skimpiest costumes are beautifully designed and evocative of the disco era. My personal favorite is Puck's outfit: a gold lamé space-age suit, winged headpiece bedecked with little white lights, goggles and lightning flashes painted on his cheeks. It may be the supreme compliment to say that the costumes are so good that they made me grateful that they're no longer in style; ditto for the hairstyles and droopy mustaches.

What really makes this so effective as a theatrical event is the creative direction and the incredible talent and energy of the young ensemble. The premise requires them to be fully integrated into the crowd, but they maintain their focus and stay in character at all times, even when they engage the people waiting in line to gain entry to the club. Three of the actresses succeed at portraying both genders, even singing in different registers, and all four who play dual roles have frequent exits and entrances, as well as countless costume changes which they handle seamlessly. One of the fairies is a virtual drum major/traffic cop, blowing a whistle to signal impending scene changes, and shifting the crowd away from an area as the actors move in. Amazingly, it all moves like clockwork and nobody gets trampled.

The Donkey Show is the first entry of three plays in Festival No. 01 "Shakespeare Exploded" and showcases what Paulus calls A.R.T.'s core mission—"to expand the boundaries of theater." Next up is Sleep No More, an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare's Macbeth told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller, being staged at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline Village and running October 8 through January 3, 2010. If you think you know Shakespeare, these productions will challenge the status quo. If you think you don't know or like Shakespeare, let A.R.T. introduce you to a view from outside the box. Disco? Hitchcock? What's next? Would you believe gospel?

The Donkey Show. Performances through January 2, 2010 at American Repertory Theater's Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. Box Office 617-547-8300 or

Conceived by Randy Weiner; Directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, David C. Woolard; Lighting Design, Evan Morris; Sound Design, David Remedios; Properties Artisan, Tricia Green; Line Producer, Ariane Barbanell; Resident Director, Allegra Libonati; OBERON Production Manager, Skip Curtiss; Stage Manager, Taylor Adamik

Cast: Heather Gordon, Rebecca Whitehurst, Scotty Morgan, Erin McShane, Lucille Duncan, Mike Heslin, Cameron Oro, Tom Fish, Eric Johnson, Steven James DeMarco, Susannah Hoffman, Samson Kohanski

Photo: Marcus Stern

- Nancy Grossman

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