Review: ‘The Onion Cellar’

Life is an onion cellar, old chum. At least it is in this wild excursion into a place where cabaret meets art-rock by way of experimental theater. Although it was a reportedly bumpy collaboration between ART and Boston-based "Brechtian punk" duo the Dresden Dolls, the result is a music-theater wonderland that is mysterious, maddening and oddly moving.

Life is an onion cellar, old chum. At least it is in this wild excursion into a place where cabaret meets art-rock by way of experimental theater. Although it was a reportedly bumpy collaboration between ART and Boston-based “Brechtian punk” duo the Dresden Dolls, the result is a music-theater wonderland that is mysterious, maddening and oddly moving.

The hybrid work is named after a chapter in Gunter Grass’ post-war novel “The Tin Drum,” about a place where people would gather and peel onions in order to unleash suppressed emotion.

For the theater piece, a black-box space is transformed into an evocative nightclub complete with waiters, cash bar and house band. The cabaret-seating space is stunningly designed by Christine Jones (“Spring Awakening”) with a combination of downtown scruffiness and uptown chic. Justin Townsend does a heroic job of lighting the various performance spaces and creating an underground atmosphere. Clint Ramos’ costumes further underscore the weird-dream feel.legit

Helmer Marcus Stern keeps the fractured realities under some sort of control while orchestrating some striking visuals. Perfs make the stylistic swings — from expressionistic madness to naturalism’s ache to comic goofiness — with amazing grace.

As the duo (engaging vocalist-keyboardist Amanda Palmer and aloof-yet-intriguing drummer-guitarist Brian Viglione) perform various scenes of domestic drama, tough love and personal pain are depicted in snippets around the club and onstage.

A red-suited MC (Remo Airaldi) tells of growing up under a strict Peruvian father who wouldn’t tolerate crying. A distraught mother (Karen MacDonald) reveals her daughter’s obsession with collecting tears in a bottle. A pair of Wisconsin tourists (MacDonald, Thomas Derrah) show the sad side of perpetually upbeat people. Then there’s a shy bartender (Neil P. Stewart) longing for romance, the distant businessman (Jeremy Geidt) swigging Scotch, a haunting girl in a blue dress (Kristen Frazier) and a young woman in a bear suit (Merritt Janson).

As the many theatrical layers are peeled away, the aim, no doubt, is to get closer to the core where pain can be purged. (“If I told my secrets. She’d write a song,” says MacDonald’s tourist in the audience, referring to the omnipresent Palmer onstage.)

But while some of the stories connect, others just confound. The music, too, has a schizophrenic quality. The songs are sometimes in sync with the action; others feature counterpoint while still others are off in a world of their own. They’re all engaging, however, and performed with star confidence by the mesmerizing Palmer.

There’s a powerful cumulative and cathartic effect when song, story and perf do come together, making the audience feel they’re not in a nightclub but in a grand confessional where redemption and release are just a drink, a song or a cry away.

If, in the end, the show doesn’t achieve its ultimate emotional end, it at least suggests a different kind of music-theater that wants to shake its aud out of isolation, inhibition and ennui.

With further development and sharper editing (the last third of the show seems like one overlong ending; the drum solo seems misplaced, if not unnecessary), “The Onion Cellar” could be a fulfilling piece of music theater, not just an eccentric and captivating one.

The Onion Cellar

Zero Arrow Theater, Cambridge, Mass.; 300 seats; $50 top

Production

An American Repertory Theater presentation of a musical in one act conceived, written and designed by Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Marcus Stern, Christine Jones, Anthony Martignetti and the cast. Directed by Stern.

Creative

Sets, Christine Jones; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, David Remedios; production stage manager, Jennifer Sturch. Opened Dec. 13, 2006. Reviewed Dec. 14. Runs through Jan. 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Dresden Dolls (Amanda Palmer, Brian Viglione), Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Jeremy Geidt, Karen MacDonald, Claire E. Davies, Brian Farish, Kristen Frazier, Merritt Janson, Neil P. Stewart.

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