Call it immersive theater, interactive theater, environmental theater — whatever rings your bell. Label it or don’t, but know that The Donkey Show, the big summer deal at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, isn’t like any other version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream you’ve ever seen.
William Shakespeare himself might have trouble plucking the plot out of the swirling colored lights and thumping disco hits that substitute for his highfalutin’ dialogue. But like the hundreds of theatergoers who pack the dance floor start to finish, he’d probably shake his groove thing and have a hell of a good time.
Created in 1999 by hot director Diane Paulus and her playwright husband Randy Weiner, The Donkey Show has been “imagined for the Miami audience” by Allegra Libonati, Paulus’ colleague at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. That’s a novel way of describing Libonati’s job as director, but hey, The Donkey Show is all about changing up the traditional theatrical experience.
The show plays out on the stage of the Ziff Ballet Opera House, but no one is sitting in those plush permanent seats to watch the action. Actors, dancers, aerialists and the audience all mingle in the pop-up, rechristened Club Oberon, a retro disco in which theater suddenly breaks out. Twirling go-go boys sporting shorts and glittering fairy-dusted chests give way to a row between the diminutive, misogynistic club owner Mr. Oberon (Shira Abergel) and his statuesque gal-pal Tytania (Stephanie Chisholm). And A Midsummer Night’s Dream lite is off to the races, with an opening-night DJ assist from Harry Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band (he’ll be back each Sunday throughout the run).
How much of Shakespeare’s story you extract depends on several factors: how well you know the original, how carried away you get dancing to songs like YMCA and You Sexy Thing, and how many of the club’s $10 drinks you consume. But craft and cleverness, artistry and humor are all at work in The Donkey Show, and Shakespeare’s tale of love misguided and requited, the malleability of identity and a sexually charged fantasy world gets played out in a novel way.
Flipping the script on Shakespearean tradition, The Donkey Show has women don drag to play most of the major male roles. The acting tends toward broadness and caricature, but in a huge, noisy space like Club Oberon, it needs to be.
What’s particularly impressive is how unrecognizable the performers are when they switch from male to female roles, and how quickly they go back and forth. Kudos to Abergel, Chisholm, Leah Verier-Dunn and Carolina Pozo, along with Luis Cuevas as Dr. Wheelgood (aka Puck on Rollerskates), Felix Sama as DJ Rudolph Valentino (Rudi Goblen assumes the role for the rest of the run) and singer Inger Hanna, who belts a fierce It’s Raining Men as a post-show treat. Dancing to Rosie Herrera’s choreography, the guys and gals playing fairies and club kids pump up the crowd in Club Oberon, not that many need encouragement to move like they’re time-tripping back to Studio 54.
Chisholm’s Tytania embodies the sensuality of The Donkey Show, wearing nothing more than tiny butterfly pasties, shiny shorts, boots and a mask as she stretches and twists her long limbs, executing Janos Novak’s aerial choreography above the pulsing crowd. Along with two performers who have been transformed into a donkey (well, a donkey with an Afro), she also plays out the X-rated reference in the show’s double entendre title, though the scene is staged in such a way that it’s barely R-rated.
To purists, The Donkey Show probably comes off as faux Shakespeare and faux disco. But whatever this immersive-interactive-environmental thing is, it’s genuine fun.