A scene from The Donkey Show
(© Marcus Stern)
A scene from The Donkey Show
(© Marcus Stern)
It's understandable why, for her inaugural show as artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, Diane Paulus would choose to revive The Donkey Show, the popular disco pastiche -- sketchily based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream -- that was conceived by her husband and co-director Randy Weiner a decade ago.

The show is phenomenally easy to mount, for one thing: Take a club-like space (ART's Zero Arrow black box lends itself easily), hoist a disco ball, lay out the velvet rope, and you're ready to roll. Casting ought to be a breeze as well, since the handful of actors are scarcely required to speak. And the end result is fairly cute and just engaging enough to fill an hour's running time (participatory dancing is encouraged before, during, and after), even if it's filled with some questionable directorial touches.

The main gimmick here is that the cast lipsyncs to a variety of 1970s anthems chosen for their emotional parallels. For instance, when Demetrius (here contemporized to "Dmitri") ditches Helena (Helen) on the dance floor -- body-checking her into the wall for good measure -- she laments "Don't Leave Me This Way." And when Lysander (Sander), after a transformative back-room snort, suddenly finds Helen super-hot, he comes on to her with "You Sexy Thing."

Even if the musical selections strike you as cheesy, and the canned disco atmosphere seems too laboriously reconstituted -- the real clubs, in those halcyon days pre-AIDS, were sites of spontaneous communal beauty -- the experience falls somewhere within the tolerably pleasant range. And then, as a lagniappe, the DJ announces "a show sure to change your definition of animal husbandry forever." Soon, you realize, with sickening certainty, that they're about to enact a different kind of "donkey show" entirely: the ultimate debasement that desperate Third World women have been known to undergo in back-alley sex clubs.

It's true that the donkey in question is a duo of Afro-wigged "Car Wash" attendants standing in for Bottom and that "Tytania" has already been characterized as an anything-for-kicks exotic dancer. Nonetheless, it's surprising that Paulus would view such a scenario as a guarantor of cheap laughs.

In fairness, the extraordinarily limber Rebecca Whitehurst does a great job impersonating the haughty, impetuous Tytania -- those butterfly pasties can't be comfortable -- while Erin McShane makes a touching Helen, and pretty Heather Gordon is superb as Mia (Hermia), especially when falling-down -- actually, flipping-over -- drunk. Their romantic travails, plus a more innocent and far more amusing allusion to the Titania/Bottom affair (an aerial encounter between a butterfly and a piñata), would have sufficed.