Rappin’ Wit’ da Bard, Dancing With the Donkey

I recently celebrated the thrilling new production of King John for daring to be unafraid of Shakespeare. It began and ended with the text, of all things! In other words, it relished the Word –the intoxicating language itself, the poetic narrative sweep, the clarity and meaning of a story well told.

It wasn’t decked out with party tricks, or dumbed down in the name of “the accessible.” It was to be heard as well as seen.

I will hear that play;

For never anything can be amiss

When simpleness and duty tender it.

The lines from that magic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream tell us everything we need to know about its author. As a playwright, Shakespeare put his faith in words; and as an actor, in how they are performed. We have a Shakespearean double-whammy of stage directions: We should hear a play spoken naturally (“trippingly on the tongue”). Yet time and again, American productions of Shakespeare ignore his advice, and an honest investigation of the text itself seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

What, then, if a Shakespeare production celebrates da Word (as opposed to the more refined-sounding “the Word”)? Where does that leave da Bard?

Well, as I live and breathe, I would say without hesitation that Bomb-itty of Errors , the hip-hop adaptation of The Comedy of Errors (at 45 Bleecker Street), is the most joyfully hilarious Shakespeare I’ve seen since Cheek by Jowl’s celebrated As You Like It . You must see it. Correction! Hear it.

It has to be heard to be believed. But my enthusiasm for this young, five-man production would not be running quite so high were it not for the fact that the rap version is beautifully and entirely within the spirit of Shakespeare. We are not purists here, except when need be. If Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could turn The Comedy of Errors into the 1938 Broadway musical The Boys From Syracuse , why not the rap Bomb-itty of Errors today? Both are musical adaptations in their fashion, and Bomb-itty is the superior one.

The production began its extraordinary life at New York University’s Experimental Theater Wing, and I would take bets that Gregory J. Qaiyum, who began the project, knows his Shakespeare–or his Comedy of Errors –backwards. Mr. Qaiyum and his equally gifted collaborators, Jeffrey Qaiyum (his kid brother who wrote the music and is the deejay), Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano and Erik Weiner are firstly true to Shakespeare’s story involving separated twins, farcical mistaken identity, sexual innuendo and the noble British tradition of cross-dressing.

Five white boys “appropriating” rap might offend some. But what I say is, tell that to the Beastie Boys. Besides, they’ve also “appropriated” da Bard, and they’re clearly brilliant at what they do. They’re fresh, freewheeling spirits, good-natured performers, self-parodists and scholars. A good chunk of Shakespeare fits merrily into the new version–da thous and thees included. Rhyme turns on a dime: “I’ll serenade ya in Spanish, woo you in Swahili/ Ask you in German: Was ist dee dealy?” Shakespeare’s messenger morphs into a slow-witted bike messenger who raps badly ; the merchant is now the first Shakespearean Hassidic rapper in history, to be joined in a coup de théâtre by the dancing Hassids of Syracuse.

The talented director, Andy Goldberg, understands more than a thing or two about the high performance art of farce and the infectious pleasure of performing it well. But what makes Bomb-itty more than a hipster’s lark is its heady joy in language that’s alive and changing. The pulse of the production’s energy bounces off the beat of its verbal ingenuity–as Shakespeare enjoyed the musical richness of words, spontaneous punning, rhyme, alliteration, linguistic invention. Rap may not offer us quiet lyricism, but in the right, irreverent, Bomb-itty hands, it invigorates the language by making it boisterous and virtuoso, as da Bard intended.

And so, while I’m on a roll, to The Donkey Show , the disco version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at El Flamingo in Chelsea. I must confess that it’s been a while now since I danced to “Y.M.C.A.” My Speedo and glitter days are behind me, if I may say so. But I’d heard great things about The Donkey Show , and nostalgia for Studio 54 belongs to all. Or as Prologue shyly puts it in Shakespeare’s version of “the Dream”–

The actors are at hand: And by their show

You shall know all that you are like to know.

And that’s certainly true. I’d say that all we are like to know about The Donkey Show is that it’s a great big laugh from start to finish. It is less about da Word of Shakespeare, more about the spirit of disco diva Donna Summer. Shakespeare’s text has been replaced with a soundtrack of such 70′s standards as “Last Dance” and “We Are Family,” sung by the fairies. Tytania’s opening words are “I love the night life …”

Tytania, played by the lovely Anna Wilson as an exotic dancer with sequined butterflies stuck to her titties, is a new reading of the role. Tytania is a slut to begin with (instead of a slut in her wildest fairy dust dreams when, you will recall, she sleeps with a donkey). But then, Shakespeare’s magic potion here has been wittily transplanted into a giant spoon of cocaine, Oberon is a sleazeball club owner, Puck a pusher on Rollerblades, the nymphs and fairies seminude gym boys discoing feverishly to “Car Wash.” The two creators and directors of The Donkey Show , Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, have therefore transposed not the letter but the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which everyone knows is about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and, of course, the noble British tradition of cross-dressing.

The fun production itself is a welcome homage to 1960′s happenings where wild “events” were improvised and theater spaces were highly flexible. The Donkey Show troupe moves among the audience. You stand or dance (and the performers dance with you, if you fancy). Seating is available on the periphery of the El Flamingo disco for old folk aged 30 and up. The action takes place on moving platforms–transforming the playing areas and energizing the crowd. The platforms are actually a direct link to the Passion plays in the Middle Ages that were performed on moving carts. The Donkey Show , you see, belongs to a great theater tradition while playing outside traditional theater.

“Give me your hands, if we be friends,” says Puck in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s Dream . And so our applause is given to them gladly.