Like a lot of people in theater these days, Diane Paulus is full of questions. Some of them are fundamental.
“What is theater?” she asks. “What do we call theater? Does theater have to take place in a dark auditorium where you sit quietly in your chair, or can theater take place in a nightclub?”
“The Donkey Show” is Paulus’ answer.
For her first production as the American Repertory Theater‘s new artistic director, Paulus transformed the A.R.T’s Zero Arrow Theater into a very convincing nightclub, complete with a well-stocked bar, glitter balls and a booming sound system.
The actors wear feather boas and shiny, tight spandex. Some have ripped muscles, and all bare lots of skin.
The audience mingles among them on the dance floor. The action, which can be pretty raunchy, unfolds within arm’s reach. The play? Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ you have the enchanted woods as the location where everybody is running to encounter this night of dream and fantasy and transformation,” Paulus said.
The woods in her production is a 1970s-era disco, based on New York City’s legendary Studio 54. “People would come down on swings,” recalled Paulus, “and Bianca Jagger would come in on her white horse — it was really an enchanted woods of its own nature.”
And what about the Bard’s kooky, love-struck characters?
“In Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s,’ you have Oberon, who’s sort of the king,” said Paulus. “In ‘The Donkey Show,’ he’s Mr. Oberon, the owner of Club Oberon — that’s his world — and Titania is his disco diva girlfriend.”
The mischievous Puck, who doses Titania with love potion in the original play, is Dr. Wheelgood here, cruising around on roller skates, popping pills into people’s mouths.
“The Donkey Show” is a sexed-up, wild channeling of Shakespeare, even for the actors.
“When I first auditioned for it I was very much a Shakespeare purist, if you will,” said Lucille Duncan, a long-standing member of “The Donkey Show”‘s New York cast, where the retro romp ran off-Broadway for six years and became a cult hit.
“I didn’t want to see Shakespeare on roller skates,” Duncan said, “and it’s hilarious how much I fell in love with this show, because it’s so raw. You know these disco songs are very immediate and intense.”
The disco songs need to be immediate because there’s not one lick of Shakespeare’s dialogue in this play. The disco anthems are the dialogue. So classics like “We are Family,” “Ring My Bell,” and “I Love the Nightlife” are the source text.
The song’s lyrics become the heart of Shakespeare’s mad love story.
All of this — the mash up of the Bard and disco; the lack of boundaries between actors and audience; the overall spectacle — adds up to what Diane Paulus calls “a theatrical event.”
“There’s a P.T. Barnum in me that believes in what that means, to create an event that you have to be part of and that’s the theater,” the director said. “It’s not a film and I’ll catch it next time, I’ll catch it when it comes out on DVD. It’s gotta be: it’s happening; it’s live; if I don’t get there to see it, I will miss it; and if I go I will be part of the creation of it.”
Paulus hopes to attract new audiences to the 29-year-old theater with a season filled with “must-see” events. But some drama fans worry about the downside.
“It’s really a season without plays,” said long-time Boston theater critic Ed Siegel. He referred to the A.R.T.’s legacy of staging great plays from the 20th century.
Siegel acknowledged Paulus’ past successes, including her Tony Award-winning revival of “Hair” on Broadway last year. He also applauded the director’s drive to give Boston’s theater scene a necessary shot in the arm.
At the same time, Siegel admitted, “I miss what has been lost of taking Brecht and Chekhov and Samuel Beckett and just bringing them to life in ways that no other Boston-area theater is capable of.”
That said, Siegel wore his dancing shoes to “The Donkey Show” last weekend, and said he had a blast at an event that successfully married Shakespeare with Donna Summer.
After Saturday’s show, theater-goers Lisa Klein and Brent Davis shimmied out of the Zero Arrow Theater.
“We go to a lot of theater, but this was very different, and it was very nostalgic of the 1970′s,” Klein said, “it all comes back to you right away.”
Davis remembered when the A.R.T. did “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” years ago. “This had nothing to do with it,” he said, “but this was far more enjoyable.”
But the “experience” isn’t always pain-free, admitted “Donkey Show” actress Lucille Duncan. “I’ve been punched as one of the characters by an audience member who was so into the story,” Duncan recalled, “and I just thought ‘Wow! She’s really into it, and if the audience goes with you on this journey then we’ve succeeded.’ ”
Artistic Director Diane Paulus has a few more journeys planned for her inaugural season at the A.R.T. Up next? A vacant building in Brookline becomes the backdrop for an immersive interpretation of “Macbeth” as seen through a Hitchcockian lens.