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'Countess' and 'Donkey' Keep Going and Going...

In the theatre business, where bad news and early closings are frequent topics of conversation, it's a refreshing change to report on two Off-Broadway shows passing significant milestones in the last couple of weeks. "The Countess" turned 500 (performances) on Sept. 5, and "The Donkey Show" turned one year old Aug. 23.

At first glance, the two shows may seem to have little in common. "The Countess" is a "well-made play" by Gregory Murphy, about respected Victorian art critic John Ruskin's troubled marriage, while "The Donkey Show" is a disco musical by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, drawn from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." However, what they do share is that they are both period pieces that make an effort to immerse audiences in their respective milieus both before and after the shows.

For many "Donkey Show" patrons, the theatregoing experience begins on the sidewalk outside the Club El Flamingo, where a company member patrols a velvet rope and apes the once-powerful doorman at Studio 54. Keeping the ticketholders at bay heightens their perceptions and expectations—and puts them at a good vantage point to watch a fight between Titania and Oberon erupting outside the club. Those ticketholders who are already inside are gaping at go-go dancers wearing those '70s fashions. (Remember athletic socks that went all the way to the knees?)

By the time "The Donkey Show" begins, patrons are primed for something that feels more like a "happening" than a play—despite being tightly scripted. Slightly more than an hour later, when the show ends, patrons can (and do) stay to dance the night away.

Theatregoers' immersion into the Victorian world of "The Countess" is less obvious, as befits the much subtler play, but director-producer Ludovica Villar-Hauser carefully wraps them in the epoch as soon as they arrive at the Lamb's Theatre. In the foyer, they will find a specially commissioned portrait of the play's leading actress, Jennifer Woodward, done in the "pre-Raphaelite" school of painting that figures heavily in the story. "The Countess" also extends the experience after the final curtain on "Victorian Nights," where historians and other experts are brought in to discuss the era with the audience.

Stick with It

One other thing both shows have in common: their producers have shown a willingness to stick with the properties and give them time to find their audiences. Not that that was easy, especially for "The Countess." When it was forced to vacate two venues in a row, Villar-Hauser refused to give up. She first moved it from the Off-Off Broadway Greenwich Street Theatre to the larger Off-Broadway Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, where, shortly thereafter, "The Countess" had to leave so the venue could be razed to make way for a newer and more lucrative building. Villar-Hauser raised additional capital and moved the show to the Lambs Theatre, with most of the original cast intact—and one actor, James Riordan, has appeared in all 500 performances.

Jordan Roth, the producer behind the revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" on Broadway this year, also moved "The Donkey Show." He first took it to the El Flamingo from the much smaller Pyramid Club in the East Village, and is now exporting the show and most of the original cast to the United Kingdom for an open-ended run there.

The producers' willingness to let "Donkey Show" and "Countess" find their audiences has paid off, with audiences increasingly finding them. Roth has a steady stream of nostalgic baby boomers (and bachelorette parties—which may be appropriate, since Shakespeare supposedly wrote "Midsummer Night's Dream" for a wedding) obediently lining up behind the velvet rope at El Flamingo. Villar-Hauser, likewise, saw "The Countess" turn profitable this summer, prompting her to remark, "I'm learning that any time you can combine the words 'drama' and 'profitable' is something of a miracle."

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