On a recent Saturday night, just after 10:30 p.m., the stars of “The Donkey Show” greeted a line of theatergoers in front of the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon in Harvard Square.
The actors did their usual preshow routine, parading around Mass. Ave. in 1970s nightclub costumes, staying in character as they interacted with patrons.
But it wasn’t like other Saturday nights at the venue. This time the performers knew they were also saying goodbye.
The ART announced this spring that after 10 years as the anchor production at Oberon, “The Donkey Show” will close with a final performance Sept. 7. ART artistic director Diane Paulus said that even though the disco musical event still draws a crowd, it’s time to give the stage to other acts.
“I think 10 years in, it felt like there was a moment to go out with a hurrah and make more space for all of the next generation of ‘Donkey Shows’ that are out there,” Paulus said in an interview.
“The Donkey Show,” created and directed by Paulus and her husband, playwright and producer Randy Weiner, is a disco-era, Studio 54-inspired take on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There’s no Shakespeare dialogue in the show (in fact, there’s not much dialogue at all). Characters in body glitter and bell-bottoms tell the loose tale of a club king and queen — and two confused couples — through choreography set to the decade’s biggest hits, including KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World,” and Peter Brown’s “Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me.” The audience is part of the main event; sometimes the drama plays out on the floor right next to them. The first “Donkey” run started off-Broadway in 1998. After New York, it opened in multiple cities, including Edinburgh, London, and Madrid.
Paulus, who was named the ART’s artistic director in 2008, said she knew her choice to stage “The Donkey Show” during her first season was a risky one. But it was the best way to state her intentions, she said.
“In so many ways it was an expression of the mission that I was inheriting at the ART. When I took the job and I read . . . that the ART is ‘dedicated to expanding the boundaries of theater,’ I thought, well, this is a show that really does that,” she said. “It [was] a way to find a new audience and redefine what the theater can be. You’re not sitting passively in the dark watching a naturalistic piece of theater. You are part of the event. The audience is a partner.”
Globe theater critic Don Aucoin wrote in his September 2009 review of the show, “This production will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if the performance I attended is any indication, Paulus’s gamble may pay off by attracting a much younger audience than is the theatrical norm.”
The show was supposed to have a regular run with an end date, but it became clear that audiences — both newcomers and subscribers — wanted to see it multiple times. Paulus kept it running a few nights a week, then made it an event every Saturday. The ongoing schedule made it a popular destination for bachelorette parties and a place to celebrate all big events.
Former ART employee Mark Sickler, who first saw the production in New York and wound up seeing it more than 200 times in Cambridge, said “The Donkey Show” also became a treat for people who wanted to dance but felt too old for the real Boston nightclub scene.
“You can’t go to any of the hot spots because then you’re that old guy sitting at the bar at the club,” Sickler said, laughing. “It’s all-ages at ‘Donkey.’ You don’t feel out of place.”
Allegra Libonati, who helped Paulus open the show at Oberon and became its resident director for eight years, said it does make sense to end the run, but that for those with a “Donkey” history, the news has been bittersweet. She said the actors and crew have formed a strong community over the years.
“I think I may have cast 20 people to play Oberon, 20 people to play Titania, if not 30. We cast hundreds of performers over the years to play different roles. On any given day, there’d be a permanent, then a cover, then a second cover.”
Libonati now lives in Las Vegas, where she’s directed “Celestia,” a family-friendly circus featuring acrobatics and acts from “America’s Got Talent” and “The Greatest Showman.” She says “The Donkey Show” prepared her for the scope of that job.
Sickler, who now lives in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where he’s on the board of M&D Playhouse, also used the word “bittersweet” to describe the end of “The Donkey Show” in Cambridge. He’s been watching old friends post Facebook notes about their last performances.
He does think it’s time for the show to end. He’ll always love the production, but, it doesn’t land the way it did 10 years ago. “I don’t think the story is relevant in a way it used to be. If you read any Shakespeare, it’s full of misogyny. It’s full of drug references. . . . You could look at it as a period piece,” he said, adding, “I think it’s run its course.”
Sickler will be there to support friends during the final performance, as will Libonati, who will get to experience “The Donkey Show” as so many did under her direction.
“I’m having my own bachelorette party at the very last one.”