Diane Paulus is a hot director with a prodigious imagination, creativity she has brought to her work on pieces about war-protesting hippies, the beauty and pain of life on Catfish Row, and a dazzlingly transformed Shakespearean romantic comedy.
Her 40th anniversary reinterpretation of Hair for the Public Theater, her first stab at Broadway, won the 2009 Tony Award as best musical revival. Last month, her reworking of a towering American opera classic — dubbed The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess — won the 2012 best musical revival Tony. She has staged the new touring Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna and is working on a fresh production of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin for the new season at the Harvard-based American Repertory Theater (ART), where she has been artistic director since 2008.
But in 1999, a decade before the fame and greater visibility of the past few years, Paulus and her playwright-husband, Randy Weiner, generated theater world buzz with a wild immersive theater experience called The Donkey Show.
A clever mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a disco homage to Studio 54, The Donkey Show is the summer’s big event at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Now in previews before its opening on Wednesday, the version staged by Paulus’ ART colleague Allegra Libonati and choreographed by Miami dance star Rosie Herrera isn’t quite like the original that ran Off-Broadway for six years, nor the one that has been running in Cambridge since 2009. The Arsht production is bigger — bigger in cast size, bigger in audience capacity — a kind of made-in-Miami Donkey Show on steroids.
“The creative impulse was how to illuminate A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Paulus says by phone from her ART office. “Randy had the idea of ‘70s disco culture working with the play … that it could be like the Athenian woods, a magical place of fantasy where you could run away from your life. … We started with Midsummer, but we’re not doing that Shakespeare play. The story and [Shakespeare’s] theatrical imagination are imbedded in [ The Donkey Show].”
Sharp-eyed, Midsummer-savvy theatergoers will be able to track the play’s scenes as they’re performed by 20 actors, dancers, singers and aerialists. Yet there’s no Shakespearean text: Disco song lyrics from the ‘70s supply meaning and context, as when the lovesick Helen (Helena in Midsummer) belts Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way to Dimitri (Demetrius), who’s hot for Mia (Hermia).
On the other hand, you can put on your boogie shoes, sashay into Club Oberon (the transformed stage of the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, where all the action takes place) and spend your evening drinking, dancing and having an experience that’s more Saturday Night Fever than Shakespeare.
That duality of a play on the one hand and a pop-up disco on the other is what drew Arsht executive vice president Scott Shiller to The Donkey Show from the first time he saw it in New York. And he thought it would be the perfect follow-up to the arts center’s spring smash, The Lion King.
“We knew The Lion King would be a hard act to follow, and we wanted a show that was the polar opposite. This is definitely not for kids, and it’s the kind of immersive experience we played with in Fuerza Bruta, Merce Cunningham and what The Project [Theatre] did in the Miami Made festival,” Shiller says. “This is the next step. We have this huge stage house, but the audience may not even realize it’s on the stage.”