My review of The American Repertory Theatre's production of The Donkey Show which was also published at PlayShakespeare.com
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 americanrepertorytheater.org