As guests entered the National Building Museum on Sunday night for the Harman Center for the Arts annual gala dinner, they walked into a dining room meant to evoke the enchanted forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But instead of traditional woodland fairies and sprites, the gala’s 400 guests found dancers in afro wigs, roller skates, bell bottoms, and platform shoes. The disco dancers hailed from Boston’s American Repertory Theatre, and before dinner they performed an excerpt from The Donkey Show, a disco-style adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set to ’70s anthems like “We Are Family” and “I Love the Nightlife.”
“Who knew there was a disco version [of A Midsummer Night’s Dream]?” said Joanne Coutts, associate director of special events for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “When guests first walk through the door, it feels like the party is alive.”
A disco Midsummer might’ve pushed the envelope, but it fit with the evening’s theme of reinterpreting Shakespeare’s words through a variety of art forms. The evening’s performance, held in Penn Quarter’s Sidney Harman Hall at 7 p.m., included ballet, opera, and African step dance interpretations of the play. The theater company presented its William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre to Sir Ian McKellan, who later performed a Shakespeare monologue following actor Mickey Rooney's performance and award earlier in the evening.
This is the third year the gala has used the three-part format of reception, performance, then a walk along a red carpet to the National Building Museum for dinner. Decor in Sidney Harman Hall was minimal, so as not to detract from the building’s sleek look and floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a view of the sunset over F Street. But in the dining room, table toppers of twigs strewn with crystals, votive candles, and fake butterflies created a natural look. Some square tables included a cut-out in the middle to accommodate towering 15-foot tree centerpieces from Suzanne Codi.
To match the event’s forest theme, Coutts and her production partners at Campbell Peachey & Associates focused on sustainable elements, like live potted herbs and violets on the tables that guests could take home, and a menu printed on handmade seeded paper that could be planted in a garden. The evening’s meal from Design Cuisine included locally-grown ingredients in the braised lamb cassoulet and salted caramel ice cream with chocolate sorbet (with fairy and donkey-head shaped cookies). Coutts said the eco-friendly approach helped cut costs to fit with this year’s slightly smaller budget.
Although the dinner’s disco performance by dancers in lamé briefs and body glitter could be considered daring, the dancing following dinner was tamer, with guests staying past 11:30 p.m. as the DJ played standards like “The Electric Slide” and “Thriller.” Even the Donkey Show performers changed into formal wear and joined in on the dance floor, sans roller skates.