Regular readers will likely recall my recent interview with Diane Paulus, the new artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, as well as the director of the current Broadway revival of Hair. In that interview, I was struck by Paulus's impulses to expand the boundaries of theater, to empower theater audiences, and to bring the venerable-but-staid A.R.T. into a new phase of theatrical exploration.
The Donkey Show certainly accomplishes all three of those admirable goals, although apparently not everyone is pleased with that fact. In tracking down the artwork that accompanies this post, I came across a number of dismissive reviews of the show on ArtsBoston. It seems that some people consider The Donkey Show to be a cheap marketing ploy, an attempt to lure in crowds with promises of licentiousness. Well, what's wrong with marketing? Furthermore, what's wrong with licentiousness, or at least the portrayal of same? Paulus was brought in to shake things up, and that's exactly what she's done.
The Donkey Show certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but it's not titillation for its own sake. It's a rather thorough re-imagining of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the action moved from Shakespeare's sylvan forest to a 1970's-era disco. You don't need to be familiar with the original play to enjoy the show here, but it couldn't hurt to give Wikipedia a look-see before you embark across the Charles. It will make certain production devices a lot more clear and more enjoyable in the process.
The production begins with 30 to 40 minutes of good, old-fashioned disco dancing, with the cast mingling among the crowd on the dance floor. The action emerges almost imperceptibly from the harmless bacchanal. Most of the main characters in the show involve double casting, and part of the infectious fun of the show is identifying who is playing whom. I have to admit, when all was revealed at the end, I found myself a bit surprised at who was beneath which disguise.
The show's staging takes full advantage of the auditorium at the A.R.T.'s new Zero Arrow Theater (renamed Club Oberon for the run of the show). The show isn't so much in-the-round as all-around, with the action weaving through the dance-floor crowd, ascending and descending various staircases, hanging from the rafters, etc. In fact, the least utilized space is the actual stage. All this creates an atmospheric, experiential, fourth-wall-be-damned kind of vibe that invites full audience engagement. (Don't worry: the cast doesn't force anyone to participate. If you like, you can purchase a a seat at one of the booths or tables that overlook the dance floor.)
I, for one, am greatly looking forward to the remainder of Paulus's current season, which includes Sleep No More, another experiential theatrical event, which is based on on Macbeth, and Best of Both Worlds, a gospel-infused celebration of The Winter's Tale.
No this isn't the old A.R.T. And hoo-frickin'-ray for that.