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I want to say right off the bat that I am not a theatre person. I am not trained in its analysis nor have I ever participated in a theatrical production (aside for a brief time where I did lighting design but that is a tech thing so I’m not counting it). I have been known to attend the theatre occasionally but usually only when I am forced by friends. I guess part of my frustration with theatre is that I simply don’t know a lot about it and it is a field that requires as much training as studio art. However, I am curious about avant-garde theatre as I feel that there are a lot of connections with the art world. In the early twentieth century there was significant cross-over between the two communities. Artists such as Salvador Dali and Henri Matisse frequently collaborated with theatre productions. However, it seems that nowadays the two rarely interact. There is theatre and its world and art and its world. Perhaps in other cities these two are intertwined but in Boston? Not so much.

It is a shame really as the spectacle of the theatre could teach some artists a thing or two about installing a show or organizing a performance. I have long thought that performance artists could learn a lot from acting and actors could learn from performance artists. Installation artists could also benefit from interacting with set designers and lighting directors (one of the main reasons I studied lighting design) to understand the theatricality of spaces. The potential for the cross pollination of ideas is huge and unfortunately ignored. It is a shame really as I think our community would be better for it. It was with these thoughts in mind that I attended the production of The Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University.

A.R.T. has opened their 2009-10 season with a dramatic and bombastic reinvention of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream called The Donkey Show. It is Diane Paulus’ debut production as Artistic Director and what a debut it is. A.R.T has turned the former Zero Arrow theatre space into a nightclub known as Oberon and placed Shakespeare’s tale in the glittery world of a disco in the 1970s. And a disco space it certainly is, complete with disco ball, roller skates, leisure suits and many a disco tune. It is a little bit destabilizing and, frankly, a whole lot of fun. The space is set up into two sections. There is the open dance floor complete with boxes for go-go dancing, a raised area with cocktail tables, and a stage at one end (though the presence of a stage feels more high school gymnasium than formal theatre – not a bad thing).

The key to The Donkey Show is that the play takes place around you. The actors weave and interact with the audience. Sounds frightening, I know. However, the skill with which the actors navigate the crowd is commendable. I hate when the third wall is broken. I have absolutely no desire to be “brought into the piece.” I once saw Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamente perform at RISD and I had to hide in my seat as they roamed the aisle looking for participants. No, thank you. Those involved with The Donkey Show are incredible. They can tell who does and doesn’t want to be involved. And honestly, by the end of the show you want to be involved because it becomes so damn fun. But I am digressing.

The show actually takes place before you even enter into the theatre. You are kept waiting outside in a line (much like a real nightclub) and as you wait the performers are wandering the streets and interacting with the attendees and each other. Each little moment gives you insight into their characters. This methodology continues as you are let into the theatre. While sipping your cocktail it pays to pay attention. The play unfolds around you little by little. It is quite a while before the music comes to a halt and you are introduced to the characters that then, of course, break out into disco songs. Not knowing a great deal about the theatre I immediately am transfixed by the fact that this is not theatre, as I know it. It isn’t formal and staged. It is alive and it happens around you. It is vibrant and exciting. The actors move and interact with you. The go-go boxes move and become instant stages where action occurs seemingly off the cuff. It is art and performance with the audience at the center of it all.

Now, I have never read Midsummer Night’s Dream and I purposely stayed away from the text, as I wanted to see if I would “get” the narrative in such a non-traditional setting. Ultimately I felt that the Shakespeare was irrelevant. The characters and the story were engaging purely for the elements one was given. It was a tale of love and betrayal and fairies and magic. It was fun and it worked. Paulus has done a commendable job of re-inventing Midsummer’s in a way that rings true to both Shakespeare ‘s play (I’m told by the theatre friends in attendance) and contemporary audiences. The Donkey Show is hopefully the first in a series of shows that will transform the way theatre is produced in Boston. Well worth a trip to the wilds of Harvard Square and well worth the price of admission. It’s run has happily been extended to January of next year.

American Repertory Theatre

"The Donkey Show" is on view until January 2nd, 2010 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Harvard Square.

All images are courtesy of the author and A.R.T.

About Author

James Nadeau is an independent curator, video artist and writer based in Boston. He is editor of Our Daily RED, the blog of arts journal Big RED & Shiny. He is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His video work has been screened internationally and he has presented papers on media and film at conferences nationally. He has programmed film and video in several festivals throughout New England and he is currently a technical instructor on film in the Literature Department at MIT. He is currently working on a manuscript on reality television under consideration by Lexington Books.

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