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The Donkey Show

There's nothing like a party to let the new neighbors know exactly what type of person you are.

With:
Mr. Oberon, Mia - Heather Gordon Tytania, Sander - Rebecca Whitehurst Dr. Wheelgood - Jason Beaubien Helen, Vinnie 2 - Erin McShane Dimitri, Vinnie 1 - Cheryl Turski

There’s nothing like a party to let the new neighbors know exactly what type of person you are. With “The Donkey Show,” Diane Paulus, the new artistic director of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is throwing a doozy of a rave — one that partied hearty for six years Off Broadway. It’s an infectious, celebratory and titillating event that starts Paulus’ first season off with giddy good fun, empty calories and a full liquor license. It also reflects the form-busting helmer’s sensibilities and her penchant for pushing theatrical boundaries for both actors and audiences.

The show (which Paulus created with husband Randy Weiner in New York in the ’90s) is ultimately slight, propelled principally by its persistent percussive beat, familiar disco-era dance tunes and an energetic and aerobic ensemble cast.

Using the barest outline of an outline of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — and without any of the Bard’s text — the tale of confused lovers in a nocturnal forest is now set in a ’70s disco, minus the language, themes and complexity of characters from the original. Instead we are given male and female dancefloor divas as they deal with a night of  unrequited love, confused couplings,  lust, revenge, drugs and bad hair.

Clearly, exploration of theme and character is not what’s on Paulus’ mind for this show but rather a demonstration of the use of unorthodox space in a theatrical environment — in this case, a black-box theater turned into a disco nightclub. Paulus proves any space can be as vital theatrically as a conventional venue.

But convention is not what the director is after. The transformation of the Zero Arrow Theater into the faux disco Club Oberon is wonderfully rendered thanks to Scott Pask’s glorious design, David Remedios’ zappy sound system and Evan Morris’ lighting — which is especially vital in keeping focus among all the comings and goings all over the club.

As she did in Broadway’s current hit “Hair” revival, Paulus shows a gift for moving large groups of people around an expansive space while maintaining clarity and control.

You’ve got to love the cast — especially the women double-cast in gender-bending surprises. Though their singing chops are not great, the ensemble’s complete embrace of the concept is fun to watch.

Heather Gordon does startling double duty as club owner Mr. Oberon and Mia (read Hermia). Rebecca Whitehurst is a hoot as Sander (read Lysander) and a hot-to-trot delight as Tytania. Helena (Erin McShane) and Dimitri (Cheryl Turski) also play two ends of the ass Vinnie (read Bottom), the rudest of mechanicals. And Jason Beaubien gives his puckish character dash on skates as Dr. Wheelgood.

A special toot should go to the quartet of glistening fairy-hunks (Mike Heslin, Cameron Oro, Tom Fish and Eric Johnson) who are probably still dancing on their disco cubes in their spandex short-shorts. The “party” continues on as long as the audience stays to drink and dance, which is long after the show ends. Oh, there was a show?

The Donkey Show

Zero Arrow Theater, Cambridge, Mass.; 200 seats; $49 top

Production: An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in one act, conceived by Randy Weiner and loosely based on William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Directed by Diane Paulus and Weiner.

Creative: Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, David Woolard; lighting, Evan Morris; sound, David Remedios; line producer, Ariane Barbanell; production stage manager, Taylor Adamik. Opened Sept. 12, 2009. Reviewed Sept. 16. Runs through Sept. 26. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast: Mr. Oberon, Mia - Heather Gordon Tytania, Sander - Rebecca Whitehurst Dr. Wheelgood - Jason Beaubien Helen, Vinnie 2 - Erin McShane Dimitri, Vinnie 1 - Cheryl TurskiWith: Mike Heslin, Cameron Oro, Tom Fish, Eric Johnson, Steven James DeMarco, Susannah Hoffman, Samson Kohanski.

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