American Repertory Theatre artistic director Diane Paulus won't mind if you keep your cell phone on. At least, she won't during The Donkey Show, the 1970s-disco gloss on A Midsummer Night's Dream she concocted with writer husband Randy Weiner in 1998 and set to the dance-fueled anthems of Donna Summer and Sister Sledge. This party of a show, which ran for six years Off Broadway and has become a signature of the Obie-winning director's propulsive, audience-immersive style, will introduce Paulus to ART loyalists and recruits when it opens in August in a nightclub custom-designed for it in Zero Arrow Theatre. The show, explains the director, "has been all over the world. It's been to Seoul, London, France, Edinburgh, Madrid. But it has not had another professional incarnation in the United States. I think that's because it pushes boundaries — what the 'mission' of this theater asks us to do."
PUSHING BOUNDARIES: Diane Paulus could have you dancing at The Donkey Show — not to mention drinking, socializing, and texting your digits off.
The Donkey Show kicks off one of three festivals that are the season's theme setters. This one, called "Shakespeare Exploded," also includes Best of Both Worlds, by Weiner and Diedre Murray, an R&B-and-gospel-infused "soulful re-envisioning" of The Winter's Tale (with a rotating roster of local gospel choirs), and the British troupe Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, which Paulus describes as "vignettes and themes from Macbeth told in a sensory journey through the lens of a Hitchcock film." Best of Both Worlds will unfold at the Loeb Drama Center, but Sleep No More, which invites audiences to wander as if through an art installation, will take place off site.
Neither of the works Paulus will direct contains a word actually written by Shakespeare, but she compares The Donkey Show with a trip to the Bard's stomping grounds nonetheless. "The audience, very much like in the Globe Theatre, is standing like groundlings, watching the action. There are VIP boxes, just like there were in the Globe, if you prefer to sit and watch. You have kind of royalty side by side with the working class, which was also very Studio 54. It was considered democracy on the dance floor; you could be a kid from Queens dancing next to Elizabeth Taylor." And you will get to dance at The Donkey Show. You will also get to drink, socialize, and text your digits off if you feel like it.
The second festival is dubbed "America: Boom, Bust, and Baseball." Inspired by the current economic crisis and Paulus's interest in the WPA of the 1930s, this cluster also high-fives the organization's moniker. "You know," Paulus observes, "we are the American Repertory Theatre, and we haven't spent a lot of time in the repertoire on American drama." That's about to change, with a roster that includes New York–based Elevator Repair Service's Gatz: Part 1 & 2, which is built on the text of The Great Gatsby, Clifford Odets's rarely revived 1935 drama Paradise Lost, and the world premiere, directed by Paulus, of Red Sox Nation, a musical with book by Richard Dresser, music by Robert Reale, and lyrics by Willie Reale. This last one flashes back to 1917, culminates in the 2004 World Series win, and blends fact and fiction "to look very seriously at the integration of African-American players into baseball and Boston's particular experience of that," says Paulus, who had been attached to the project even before she accepted the ART job last May.
The six-hour, two-part Gatz is a project more fabled than seen in the Northeast, since a pending Broadway musical based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel prevented the writer's estate from granting rights to perform the work in New York or Boston (the latter ban has been lifted) and forced interested parties to travel to such far-flung locales as Troy (New York), Minneapolis, and the capitals of Europe to see the 2006 work, the "script" of which consists of the novel read from start to finish. "There's no play," Paulus explains. "It's set in a modern office, and a worker finds a paperback of The Great Gatsby and he starts reading it out loud. And then in this very magical, innovative, theatrical way, the life of the office starts to parallel the life of the novel."
The "bust" component of this festival is Odets's Depression-era drama, ostensibly the author's favorite, which will be directed by Daniel Fish. He introduced the work to Paulus, who found it "beautiful, with all this theatrical referencing to the Milton, but also very visceral and evocative, with themes that are eerily present for us right now in terms of, when you hit an economic crisis, what are your values? Do you cheat?" She's also a cheerleader for the young director, whose credits run the gamut from Tartuffe to The Elliott Smith Project.
The third festival, intense if condensed, unfolds over a weekend in May and is presented in collaboration with the Huntington Theatre Company and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Titled "Emerging America," it promises a combination of new voices and late-night parties that'll include a return of The Donkey Show. So roll over, Shakespeare, and text Fitzgerald the news.