Sunday, September 27, 2009

Well Met by Disco's Light: The Donkey Show

My review of The American Repertory Theatre's production of The Donkey Show which was also published at

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 to gawk at. Tytania’s fabulous fairy quartet of sexy male dancers is clad only in sequined hot pants and glitter. 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 across the dance floor and Mr. Oberon gets friendly with the ladies in the crowd while Tytania looks on, purse-lipped. 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 quickly 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. This interesting divergence from a normal musical works very well, though at first we are not sure whether their interrupted singing is intended. One shining moment when the karaoke nature of the show adds to the performance is when Mia, played by Heather Gordon, attempting to woo back her Sander, revealing frilly panties while drunkenly butchering a song, a bottle in each fist. Erin Mcshane, as Helen, hilariously plays out the role of the unrequited lover. Shakespeare’s Helena becomes very lame and desperate in her hands, with wonderful physical comedy as a result. When standard practices of dedicating songs and seductively offering cherries our of her drink do nothing to spark interest in her Dimitri, she wails out her case through Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, grinding up against him and attempting to carry him away, and we, cringing with laughter, cheer her on.

Scotty Morgan as a Puck, or Dr Wheelgood, 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 and sends them gleefully 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. He is certainly something a bit more than us mortals looking up at him from the dance floor. The same sense of impressed wonder and wariness accompanies every sensual move of Tytania, played by Rebecca Whitehurst, and the audience can’t keep their eyes off her as she is caressed by her fairies, flaunts Oberon, and eventually falls under the spell of the drugs fed to her in a giant glow-in-the-dark spoon.

The music, set and costume design deserve shared applause for an overwhelming audio and visual experience. The drugged transformation of each of Puck’s victims is accompanied by Also Sprach Zarathustra performed by Eumir Deodato, bringing to mind the otherworldly wonder of 2001 A Space Odyssey (and Peter Sellers in Being There). Tytania’s costume: butterfly pasties, knee high boots, and blue plastic hot pants that match her fairies, leaves little to the imagination, yet makes her all the more mysterious and untouchable. The only drawback is when the Vinnies share the role of Bottom the ass and the magical fantasy of the productions lets off a little. Though his braying is uproarious, the Vinnie creature looks like the front Vinnie’s wig is falling off, and the back Vinnie is hiding. Considering the quick costume changes that other characters undergo out of sight, the audience’s suspension of disbelief is not quite enough to make a 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, as lower class rude mechanicals, are really no ruder than the other human characters, but they interrupt their own song with gruff homophobic comments. Puck’s remedy for the lovers’ confused affections looks suspiciously like giant roofie pills. And Tytania’s love for an ass takes on a hilarious, if cring-worthy, literal turn.
The Donkey Show is 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 obscenity and with every cheeky nipple flash, every arm lick, and every crotch dive, the audience screeches with pleasure, goading on the sexuality and the madness, demanding more and more. And the production complies, and takes the obscenity very, very far as we learn the reason that the production is called The Donkey Show.

Don’t forget, you have to be 18 to enter, and, of course, 21 to drink. 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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's The Comedy of Errors

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors was performed on the Boston Common on a warm summer night that followed a sweltering summer day. The entire atmosphere was reminiscent of a weekend music festival. Hot greasy food on thin paper plates was available behind the vast expanse of grass crammed with summer Shakespeare revelers. The slight majority of the crowd was younger, in their 20’s, casual and sitting on an assortment of blankets and popping up to wave at friends. However, seating directly in front of me was a quintet of adults in their 50’s in beach chairs, impeccably dressed and passing around slices of baguettes topped with cheese, olives, and sun dried tomatoes. The variety and volume of the audience that arrived two hours before curtain demonstrates Director Steven Maler’s success at restoring to the masses a playwright that he tells us in the program, has “lost (his) populist roots” . The Comedy of Errors was the perfect production to appeal to the hundreds in the crowd, as a visually stunning set and Ensemble complimented actors delivering Shakespeare’s sharp wit with flawless comedic timing. Of course one couldn’t forget the slapstick comedy and plethora of sexual innuendos that delighted the parts of us that would have, long ago stood in the Pit at The Globe Theatre.

The atmosphere in this production was of a racy nightlife in a city ignoring the Depression in their pursuit of pleasure. It’s The Comedy of Errors in Miami of the 1930’s, the speculation boom has ended, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 has left thousands homeless and the city, teetering on a precipice of Depression, has become obsessed with everything lavish. The set design, costume design and dancing Ensemble succinctly and colorfully demonstrated the effervescence of the time and the love for everything gaudy in the Art Deco architecture, fashion and lifestyle. Dance routines between and within scenes consisted of various groups interrupting and overtaking others, as lifeguards, nuns, police officers, mobsters, drunks, flappers and lovers fought to dominate the scene and each other. Order is on the losing side, as we saw policemen and nuns seduced by the crime, sex, and more than anything else the chaos that governs the mishaps in this play. A sense of urgency was palpable in The Comedy of Errors set in an era where crime, not jobs brings money into the city. Everything was visually stunning on the outside, seedy on the inside, and the confusion that erupted when two sets of twins with matching names collide with each others’ lives seemed like just another side show on a wild Miami night.

Fitting for this setting, the source of authority in the play is a top gangster and Dmetrius Conley-Williams’s performance as Solinus brought together the Shakespearian speech with the Art Deco setting in the opening scene. The nobility and authority he conveyed was tempered by the raspy tones of a formidable mobster (complete with his own theme music). His harsh sentence of death for a trespassing foreigner was put on hold when he, along with the audience, were placated by the tragic tale told by Egeon, played by Fred Sullivan Jr. Egeon’s description of the tragedy that left him “severed from bliss” captivated the Duke and citizens of Miami who are still reeling from the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926.

After Egeon’s exposition and temporary pardon, the action moved to the sets of twins being dragged into each other’s roles and their higher and higher-pitched confusion was hilarious. Dromio of Ephesus (Remo Airaldi) got the audience laughing quickly, and he and brother Dromio of Syracuse (played by Larry Coen) slipped, cowered, farted and squealed their way through their misadventures. They held the monopoly on the best moments of physical comedy, one shining example was Dromio of Ephesus fleeing to the comfort between a lifeguard’s legs to escape Antipholus of Ephesus’s punishments of spanking and nipple twists. However their physical comedy is nothing to the non-stop sexual innuendos Shakespeare has written into this raucous comedy. Clarified by exaggerated gesticulation, Dromio of Ephesus likened the woman claiming to be his wife to various Gothic monsters, including Dracula and Frankenstein. Both Dromios were clad in Technicolor golfing outfits that are reminiscent of Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum, or, in this comedy of doubles, more likely Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dee.

Antipholus of Ephesus (Josh Stamell) joined in on the physical comedy, and his determination that witchcraft caused his confusion leads to hilarious moments of terror for him and his servant. Beyond the comedy he is the Prince Charming of the brothers, whose impassioned addresses to Luciana temporarily interrupted the laughter of the audience and the unforgiving ridicule that occupied most of the action onstage. We were instead charmed by breathlessly delivered ardor and heartfelt romantic advances. His twin, played by Dan Roach, seemed far less noble, from his first appearance he is carefree and droll and we suspect, along with his wife, that he has been indulging in the charms of the Miami women who intermittently parade across the stage.

Meanwhile Jennifer Ellis, as Adriana is the one most distressed by the twins switching places, after all she is married to one. Her jealous assumptions make for amazing physical comedy and when she hears a man identical to her husband claim he does not know her, she follows in hot pursuit; jealousy and despair leading her to crazily stomp after him all over the stage and beach. Disheveled, distressed, and navigating her pursuit with high heels on sand, she is briefly the picture of the archetypal psychotically jealous housewife. She is joined by her sister Luciana and together the women drive Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus running away from what they believe to be screeching, terrifying fairy women.

Adriana is pitiable, all around her try to convince her that it is not her place to mistrust her husband, and she is later blamed for nagging him into madness. Zofia Gozynska as Luciana countered her loyal yet anxious stage sister by acting like a blithe coquette, whose movements often brought Marilyn Monroe to mind. She was fabulously fickle, preaching patience to her anxious sister and fidelity to Anitpholus of Ephesus in one moment, and swooning and squeaking with pleasure the next. Her inner-Marilyn came out whenever she was touched by a man, at which point she threw off her own words of advice and embraced the flirtation of the man she believes to be her brother in law.

At times the play’s physicality caused audio problems and some dialogue was lost. Clothing occasionally muffled the microphones; once we lost Antipholus of Syracuse’s wit for an entire scene and at other points they were turned up alarmingly high. In general however I was very impressed by the sound, the only other time that I became aware of the amplification was during the final song. Rebecca Whitehurst gave a wonderful performance as a self-serving and alluring courtesan. The closing song was a bit anticlimactic and though the dance routine was visually stunning, her complex dance steps caused some of Whitehurst’s vocals to be strained.

The production as a whole was enjoyable and light, and the moments of tragedy fail to quite touch us after all of the jokes and dancing. When Adriana is accused of driving her husband mad in front of a crowd of people, she seems crushed with guilt, broken by the idea of her failing destroying her husband’s mind. However minutes later, the few characters that are not already on stage, enter, including the other set of Antipholus and Dromio, and we forget the accusation and the reaction of the accused. Was Adriana unreasonably jealous before the arrival of the Ephesus twins? The quick dismissal of this moral is indicative of the play as a whole, there is not much to learn from the predicaments of a pair of identical twins who are repeatedly mistaken for each other. A true comedy, the play ends with an exchange of love and a marriage on the horizon. Even Egeon who entered as a grief stricken, broken old man ready to die is given his own piece of happiness in the last scene. Everyone dances offstage with many pairs reunited and happiness, though certainly not order, is promised for all.