Reviewed by Will Stackman
With a title inspired by a paragraph in chapter 42 of 1999 Nobel Prize winner Gunther Grass' fable "The Tin Drum" and some creative differences during its development, the American Repertory Theatre recently premiered Amanda Palmer's "The Onion Cellar" in their flexible space at Zero Arrow St. This time this large black box space is set up as a cabaret with tables and a bar along the side serving beer and wine at the usual prices. A large circular array of lights hangs over stage set against one side wall. Opposite the stage the wall above the audience is covered with memorabilia. Designer Christine Jones created this environment before the project was fully developed, and much of the setup can be stored for use in future projects. An "Onion Peeling Movie" credited to Peter Sand wasn't used in the show, so far.
The conceit is that "Shmuh's Onion Cellar" is an establishment where patrons chop onions for themselves to release tears they've been holding back. Several interlocking family tales, created with the help of a cast made up from ART veterans and Institute students, are revealed between songs written by Palmer and musical numbers written and performed by Palmer and her partner, drummer and guitarist, Brian Viglione. The musicians play themselves with younger doubles, Claire Elizabeth Davies and Brian Farish, from the ensemble. Costumes for the show, including the waitstaff were done by Clint Ramos. The punk posing of the piece seems at times quaint.
Both Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah, longtime ART company members, appear in dual roles. MacDonald is the Mother of the Girl in Blue, who died in a car crash after her prom. She has an affecting monologue concerning her daughter's collection of tears, Derrah is a probable Lunatic in a gray suit bound in wide white tape with a phone handset taped to his head, perhaps a Father who failed to listen, but not the Girl's father who's played by ART senior actor Jeremy Geidt. The pair also play the Louvers, a childless older couple from Wisconsin who've driven their RV to Cambridge to visit their nephew who attends Harvard. Geidt spends most of the show quietly drinking himself into oblivion on a raised platform upstage right. Company clown, Remo Airaldi is the MC for the cabaret, who tells of his childhood and mimes to an aria sung by Caruso near the end of the show. All four experienced actors add theatrical weight to the occasion, but still don't manage to bring it all together
The program doesn't identify individual roles, but two students, probably Neil P. Stewart and Merritt Janson appear as both Onion Boy and Mute Girl, two peculiar lovers, as well as the Girl in the Bear Suit and her friend, the latter both tend bar. Kristen Frazier is the daughter in the blue dress, perennially pleading for her father to pick up the phone. The show was directed by Marcus Stern, Associate Director at the ART, who teaches at Harvard, the Institute, and Harvard Extension, who was ultimately charged with deciding its final shape. The cast developed much of the dialogue during the rehearsal process. A show like this might benefit from longer development, plus established communication between the various collaborators.
The 90 minute melange is somewhere between a club concert, a theatrical collage, and an incipient rock album. The Dresden Dolls are regularly billed as "Brechtian Punk Cabaret", and their often loud alternative rock sound can definitely alienate members of the audience from each other. The management has earplugs available on request. Sound designer David Remedios balances the miked cast and the rock equipment as best he can. Palmer's "Onion Cellar" performed at the opening sets out her premise, but the piece which best catches their essence is "Coin Operated Boy". Her lyrics when audible show flashes of wit. Viglione gets an impressive drum solo late in the show which lasts a bit too long. Of the various routines in the collage, MacDonald and Derrah's "Louvers" are the audience favorites. The show's theme of love and loss, which is of course universal, is only obliquely explored and hardly revelatory. Of the ART's two shows adapted from other mediums currently playing at the ART ("Wings of Desire" closed Sunday, Dec. 17th), the earnestness of "The Onion Cellar" seems preferable however.