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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.

With:
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.

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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