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‘Donkey Show’ set tone for emerging artists

From left: Daniel Gold, Jessica Barstis, and Andrew Barrett Cox dance at “The Donkey Show” anniversary party last month.

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

From left: Daniel Gold, Jessica Barstis, and Andrew Barrett Cox dance at “The Donkey Show” anniversary party last month.

CAMBRIDGE — When “The Donkey Show” celebrated its fourth anniversary at Oberon recently, the party looked a lot like every Saturday night at the American Repertory Theater’s second venue: patrons with cocktails in hand boogieing down lustily with barely clad cast members, as a thumping disco beat filled the air.

But even those with little patience for the show’s Studio 54-inspired take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” might take heart from other happenings at Oberon.

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The venue has inspired collaborations and new productions from artists who are mostly in their 20s, including current or former members of “The Donkey Show” cast. They say Oberon offers them a first-class home for shows that might otherwise be consigned to obscure basement venues — or never get made at all. These range from the ghoulishly sexy “horror burlesque” of the Slaughterhouse Sweethearts troupe to an NPR-ish quiz show.

“The concept of Oberon as it is today was sort of a second thought as we created the club-theater environment that was the set for ‘The Donkey Show,’ ” said Ariane Barbanell, director of special projects for the ART and associate producer of Oberon. “We have this space, we have this amazing place to play, what more can we do?”

“Immersive” is the word ART people like to use when they talk about “The Donkey Show.” Shakespeare’s play provides the plot for a disco-era fantasy that plays out on a dance floor crowded with patrons who interact with the cast, sometimes cheek to cheek — or hip to hip, if they’re doing the Bump. And the bar is open.

Emmanuel Avellanet, 29, is a dancer and actor who’s driven up from Providence every week for almost the entire run of “The Donkey Show,” primarily playing the fairy Cob Web. At the anniversary show, shirtless and be-glittered, he bounded up over a railing to the mezzanine, strutting his stuff atop an occupied table before vaulting back to the dance floor.

“I walked into ‘The Donkey Show’ thinking, ‘Ah, this is going to be a fun gig for the weekend,’ ” Avellanet said. “I actually just really fell in love with the venue and what it can do.”

He said it’s always interesting to act in a show with no fourth wall, where individual interaction with patrons — including close dancing atop one of the movable “disco boxes,” washing-machine-sized cubes that serve as dance platforms and more — is all part of the role. He has been cast in “AcousticaElectronica,” ART’s “Prometheus Bound” and several other shows at Oberon — as well as a Miami run of “The Donkey Show.”

“Those of us who have been in the venue for a while generally get calls [for parts] because we’re familiar with how to handle a pneumatic box or how to interact with audiences. It takes a certain level of skill,” Avellanet said.

“I say I really did half of my graduate school education at the Boston Conservatory and half at Oberon,” said Marissa Rae Roberts, 25, who has played various roles in “The Donkey Show” since April 2011.

That year she and “Donkey Show” cast mate Colin Thurmond and a third friend formed Touch Performance Art. Their “AcousticaElectronica” shows draw crowds by blending classical music and electronic dance beats along with theater, dance, and even circus skills.

“Touch is very loyal to Oberon,” Roberts said. “We’re very inspired by not only the opportunities in the beautiful structure of the space, but also by the people who work there,” including lighting and sound design teams. “We really owe them a lot.”

Barbanell said Oberon is creating an artist-in-residence program including Touch, the Boston Circus Guild, and the Liars & Believers theater company, hoping to strengthen their programming with long-term planning and mentoring.

“The Donkey Show,” co-directed by Diane Paulus and her husband, Randy Weiner, debuted in New York in 1999 and came to Cambridge in 2009, kicking off the first full season programmed by Paulus as ART’s artistic director. Detractors grumbled about its lack of fidelity to Shakespeare’s words, but the box office was strong from the beginning.

Barbanell says the ecosystem of performers and shows that has grown up at Oberon is a logical evolution. “Part of Diane’s mission has been about celebrating local and emerging artists and finding a space to be an incubator for the work that is coming in Boston, and that’s happening.”

Formerly the Zero Arrow Theatre, the Harvard-owned venue at 2 Arrow St. on the eastern edge of Harvard Square offers 3,000 square feet of performance space with a shallow stage at one end, a huge dance floor, a raised mezzanine on the side and two bars. It holds between 150 and 300 patrons, depending on whether there are tables set up on the floor. Directors and performers cherish the space’s eccentricities: a catwalk around two sides, stairs and ladders and railings, and mirrored alcoves above the booths on one wall.

Young artists credit the ART’s support and their own sense of community for creating a welcoming scene for shows and troupes, from “The Bacchae” to Black Cat Burlesque. But it starts, they said, with ART’s flexible business model. Call it the bottom line, or maybe “bottoms up.”

“We do have a liquor license at Oberon, and we like for people to enjoy beverages during the show, and if we’re able use that revenue stream to cover the costs of the room, then the artist doesn’t owe us anything,” Barbanell said.

Basically, ART is shooting to break even with the smaller outside groups, she said, but they’ve had significant successes with their own shows or those they’ve presented as partners.

Besides “The Donkey Show,” ART’s own productions at Oberon are usually edgier than what it presents at the Loeb Drama Center, such as “Cabaret” with Amanda Palmer as the Emcee and ART veteran Thomas Derrah as Fraulein Schneider. Oberon also presents some outside shows, such as Ryan Landry’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show” (the stage forerunner of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” movie).

Ample skin and a certain amount of gender-bending may seem de rigeur at the venue, but that’s not always the case. Stickball Productions put on “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” here, and that play’s grizzled 1970s gangsters and cops revealed themselves mostly through dialogue and occasional gunshots.

Richie Moriarty

From left: Harvard Business School Professor Robert Eccles, You're the Expert Host Chris Duffy, Comedians: Robert Woo, Zach Sherwin, Myq Kaplan.

Another fully clad Oberon show is the monthly “You’re the Expert,” Chris Duffy’s ultra-Cambridge-y quiz show, which features scientists from local institutions of higher learning and a panel of comedians who try to guess exactly what they study. Academic terminology and acronyms are mined for their comic value.

Duffy, 26, said he put on the show three times in a small screening room at the Somerville Theatre before he started looking for a bigger space and got a bite from Oberon programming manager James Wetzel. “He basically said, ‘Why don’t you come here and guarantee some drink sales, and we’ll provide you with three technical people and all this equipment, and it will be an experiment. And if it works, we can do it again.’ It completely freed me up to not worry about the finances and logistics and just concentrate on making the show as good as possible,” Duffy said.

The first show sold out, and he’s been doing them at Oberon for nearly a year.

“For me it’s absolutely the dream,” Duffy said. “You find a place that’s willing to take a risk on you, you do really well, they’re really happy about it and you’re able to become, like, a monthly institution there, and they help support it and grow it.”

And, Duffy said, his show attracts a somewhat more serious group: “I think a lot of our audience is probably not people who are coming to dance half-naked at ‘The Donkey Show.’ ”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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