BY ADITYA AGRAWAL
A trip to the unexpectedly welcoming chaos of The Donkey Show.
Saturday nights at Harvard comprise for me — as for many Haardvarks — a volatile mix of party hopping, gregarious revelry, and raucous debauchery. An awful sucker for traditions, I lived up this Saturday night in a similar fashion – except that I spent it wedged awkwardly between drunken fairies and horny donkeys, discovering a surreal theatre experience crafted by no less than a Tony Award-winning director herself.
The Donkey Show, directed by Diane Paulus (also director of the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge), has been running every weekend since 2009 at the Oberon, just down the road from the Yard on Arrow Street. Oberon is a theatre space tearing down all notions of contemporary theatre space as we know it. It is an ingenious contraption fusing together elements of nightclubs, bars, and theatres; a space unlike any that I have ever experienced before in my fairly seasoned experimentation with a spectrum of Indian theatrical spaces. Oberon has an inconspicuous main stage, an adjacent dance floor, and tables — for the more indulgent patrons — on either side of the dance space. Indian theatrical spaces have had, always, a centrifugal center of gravity that forms the axle for much of the theatrical action – a direct challenge to the interspersed, non-compartmentalized space that Oberon presented.
And the act itself demolished the limits of what theatre can encompass. Based broadly off Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a modern adaption shedding the byzantine dialogues and complex characters that entail the original text. I knew that I was in for an entirely unexpected night when the pre-show began: four ‘fairy hunks’ in briefs and bathed in stardust gyrated on disco cubes in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by a sea of revelrous patrons hooting, drinking, and dancing. The show brings to the fore a lot of the sexual innuendos often suppressed in the more literary and academic readings of the Bard’s works. We have Mr. Oberon, the club owner, jiggling the breasts of a functionally naked Titania and the fairy Mia dry-humping with a donkey. The characters danced and reveled to classic disco beats from the 70’s, jumping offstage and, at will, shifting the action to the dance floor below or showing up unawares on the balcony mezzanine or on stage-side patron tables. Ultimately, the play is one big nonsensical, orgasmically colorful and unabashedly brusque riot of confusion amongst star-crossed lovers that ends in happy reconciliation amongst all, thanks to Dr. Wheelgood’s potion. (He, a take on the original play’s ‘Puck,’ is the same elf on roller skates that caused the confusion in first place by administering a love potion to each of the individuals.)
The show is a fundamentally immersive experience, and the spectators are expected not so much to be viewers of the show as to live and flow with it. The show, I believe, manages to beautifully walk the tightrope between a burlesque, a cabaret, and a play. There are very few Indian theatrical forms I know of that have experimented with the cabaret version in such capacity; such a production would, undoubtedly, have been heckled and brought down by self-appointed moralists in a society that largely prides itself on its moral righteousness at the same time as it harbors an appalling rates of sex crimes, amongst other things. As such, the production holds a special significance for me: it encompasses the metropolitan identity that art should be accorded, free of the bounds of morality and societal norms. Art is essentially an avenue for discovering newfangled means of expression, and expression never can be limited to ceilings imposed by the existent ways and thought processes of the society.
Do keep in mind, though, that the show can potentially be disturbing for some. A friend from New York who I’d coaxed into accompanying me to the show, pressed to leave midway, citing how the show was ‘way too inappropriate’ for her. I found this incredibly funny for countless reasons. Not the least amongst these was the fact that I, hailing from as closeted a society as India’s, was expected to be the more artistically conservative – very few could have imagined a teen from downtown Manhattan to have a more calcified sense of what comprises decent art than I did. This led me to another important conclusion about art: the appreciation of art is a process that can potentially take shape independent of any and all outside influences, from societal beliefs you grew up internalizing for years to background conditions that you still confront constantly. Call me a libertarian if you may, but I believe firmly that art serves to take us forward, and nothing in the past that successfully propels us (and art) in new directions was created within the bounds that society built for us.
Aditya Agrawal, ’17 ([email protected]) believes that libertarianism should be a national religion by itself.
The print edition of the 11.14.13 issue of the Harvard Independent incorrectly names Pauline Ryan as the artistic director and director of the Donkey Show. The artistic director and director of the Donkey Show is in fact Diane Paulus.