STEAMY ACROBATICS: Rebecca Whitehurst's Tytania seems to live in a full split.
C-dust pinch-hits for fairy dust in The Donkey Show, Diane Paulus & Randy Weiner's disco-set riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Forget the juice of "a little western flower" with which fairy king Oberon and hench-sprite Puck mix up the libidos of the hormone-drenched characters charging through Shakespeare's Athenian wood. In the Studio 54–inspired environs of Club Oberon (formerly Zero Arrow Theatre), where this theatrical dance party unfolds through October 31, Dr. Wheelgood, a gold-lamé-clad Puck on roller skates, lures human quarry into a curtained-off corner from which they emerge staggering and tumbling, a residue of white powder on upper lips and fake moustaches. And did I mention that the androgynous principals are played by women, whereas fairy queen Tytania's posse is a quartet of buff young men in tight boy shorts, glitter, and not much else?
Before you go running for Harold Bloom and the sheriff, let me add that this energetic marriage of disco, Dream, and Tijuana tourist entertainment
may be the most alive, immersive piece of theater I've ever been dunked in. Framed by episodes of Saturday Night Fever
in which you may or may not choose to star, the hour-long work contains not a single word actually penned by the Bard. It borrows only plot (something Shakespeare himself generally borrowed), bringing to a dance arena already populated by audience members dramatis personae
roughly corresponding to the familiar feuding fairies, mix-and-match lovers, and rude mechanicals of the Dream
Materializing out of nowhere: club owner Mr. Oberon, who's out to humiliate his haughty diva girlfriend, Tytania; desperately yearning or cockily dismissive lovers Helen, Dimitri, Mia, and Sander; and a twin couple of ruffle-shirted, Afro-coiffed dudes both named Vinnie. Ingeniously double-cast, sexily supple, and screeching into headsets, they join the paying crowd (a small minority of whom occupy tables in a cabaret area that also sees action) for a night of hedonism and hustle driven by the pounding beat and melodramatic passions of disco hits from the 1970s. These run from Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" (Tytania to the two-man Bottom) and Stephanie Mills's "Never Knew Love like This Before" (for the corrective morning after) to Donna Summer's "Last Dance" (the reunion of Mr. O. and a shaken Tytania) and "Car Wash" (the Rose Royce movie theme that serves as occupational anthem of the Vinnies).
First salvo of a trio of shows making up "Shakespeare Exploded!", one of two festivals through which American Repertory Theater artistic director Paulus will introduce herself to Cambridge this season, The Donkey Show opened Off Broadway in 1999 and ran for six years. What Paulus and writer/collaborator spouse Weiner had tapped into was hardly an intrinsic connection between disco and the Bard but rather the carnally charged theatricality of both the disco music and its swirling scene, with denizens arrayed in everything from boots and fishnets to leisure suits clamoring behind velvet ropes while waiting for admittance to a world whose temporary, drug-fueled liberation mirrors (and in Club Oberon, where a thousand points of multi-colored light slice the dark, it mirror-balls) Shakespeare's metaphoric, fairy-manipulated wood.
Retro and revelatory at once, with a sex-show climax that's more grotesque and menacing than erotic, The Donkey Show feels frenzied. But except for the actions of the audience, and the cast in reaction to the audience, its every caricatured move is precise, from those of the Mafia goon guarding the back room to butterfly-pasties-adorned Tytania's steamy acrobatics. (Performer Rebecca Whitehurst seems to live in a full split.) The opening-night cast included several ringers from the New York production, but I imagine that the dancer-actor athletes who replace them will be scrupulously well trained, and that the energy in the room will continue to suggest that, whatever Puck is pushing, the love juice in Shakespeare's little western flower is less cocaine than pure adrenaline.