Club Oberon, the American Repertory Theater’s black box-cum-club space, hosts an eclectic range of shows that often redefine visitors’ expectations of theater performances — this is not the place for stodgy, conformist productions. A recurring element in the club’s revolving arsenal is “The Donkey Show,” a disco rendition of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which plays almost every Saturday. This is probably one of the best examples of Oberon’s blurring of the line between club and theater (after all, it isn’t a coincidence that the club’s name is the same as that of one of the main characters in the show’s source material).
The performance begins even before the audience enters the club. For one thing, the audience itself is part of the entertainment; more than a few spectators are dressed in the spirit of the show, sporting glittery clothes, leafy wreaths and fairy wings. For another thing, what appeared to be a drunken altercation in the ticket line between a smarmily dressed man and a woman sartorially expressing her devotion to flower power turned out to be a staged appearance by two of the performers outside the club. Even the bouncers played along, giving nothing away about the uncomfortable interaction taking place around them — maybe their inaction was, in fact, a giveaway.
Things start a lot like parties at any club: slowly. The audience trickles in, with a noticeable age difference between those dancing along on the dancefloor and those lounging at the tables ringing the elevated platforms around it. A bar inside the performance space ensures that everyone (of the appropriate age) is in the mood to dance along with the go-go dancers. For the half hour between when doors open and when the performance begins, these dancers interact with the audience — one, with an obnoxiously loud whistle, goes around inspecting the wallets of anyone not dancing pulling them up to dance with them and introducing themselves to the audience to explain whom they portray in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” story.
If it weren’t for the frequent and direct addressing between characters, it would be extremely difficult to understand the story told by “The Donkey Show.” All in all, the story is of minimal importance to enjoying the show. All one really needs to have a good time here is an appreciation for the kitsch and glam of 70s disco. At one point, potentially the highpoint of the show, the audience is encouraged to pair off and dance down the middle of the dancefloor while the entire club cheers on. Even during the performance, the audience is free to dance provided that it moves out of the performers’ way when they need a certain space — this is where the dancer with the whistle comes in handy, and oh does he make use of it — and, after the performance, Club Oberon turns into an actual nightclub.
There is a lot to this show that will rub some audiences the wrong way. The degree of nudity (high) may not be for everyone, and anyone who wants to avoid getting glitter all over them should maintain a significant radius between themselves and the dancers. Many of the male roles are played in drag, with the actors sporting hilarious fake mustaches and period suits. At the same time, many of these more risqué qualities may actually recommend the show to audiences — it depends on your taste.
Whether or not you go to “The Donkey Show” for the performance, it is definitely an experience to share with friends, either in the moment or after the fact. To argue for the former, it is extremely difficult to describe the show accurately in words, especially written words, as this review just barely touches on the superficial qualities of the show. If you’re looking for a performance that makes you say “wow,” regardless of the reasons why, this is the show for you.