Amanda Palmer bares all

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 23, 2010

On the church steps, a stocky, black-clad man with spiky hair and eyeliner made arcane gestures at no one while smoking a cigarette. She introduced him with three names — Steven Mitchell Wright — explained he was the show's movement director, and disappeared into rehearsal.

This production of Cabaret will likely cement Palmer as a Boston institution. It will also mark the ART debut of director Steven Bogart — Palmer's high school drama coach, with whom she collaborated on "With the Needle That Sings in Her Heart," a Lexington High School original adaptation of Neutral Milk Hotel'sIn the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

The ART gave Palmer carte blanche. She had her pick of plays, actors, and roles. She chose Cabaret, Bogart, and the Emcee.

"I thought it was a really inspired choice for Amanda to play the Emcee instead of Sally Bowles," Brian Viglione, Palmer's partner in the Dresden Dolls, tells me over the phone.

"Sally Bowles would have been the more cliché, obvious position, but I think the Emcee is closer to Amanda's personality and her role creatively. Amanda might appear on the surface to be more of the exhibitionist, Sally Bowles type, when in fact the more dominant trait is the puppet master, the person pulling the strings and orchestrating things."

Palmer might seem like a gleeful narcissist, completely devoid of boundaries. But according to her and those close to her, this isn't completely true. Palmer's exhibitionism is instead a careful affectation designed to enhance her art. "The fans only see 10 percent of what I put out there," she says. "The other 90 percent of my life is mine."

'We spoke Bogart'
Palmer has been known to theater geeks, goth kids, and street performers ever since she and Viglione formed the Dresden Dolls in 2001. The Boston duo were heroes to a generation of misfits in stripey tights who flocked to see the Dolls in increasingly large local venues. Palmer first appeared at the ART with Viglione in a play called TheOnion Cellar in 2006, after which the band went on an indefinite hiatus.

Since then, her own star has risen yet higher, as much by controversy as by the merit of her art. After Palmer released a solo record in 2008, her music video for "Oasis" — a bitterly humorous song about date rape and abortion — was banned in the UK. Palmer refused to apologize, citing personal experience as the source of her right to make light. "I could try to win points by talking about how I've been date raped (I have been, when I was 20)," she wrote on the Huffington Post, "or how I have every right to joke about this if I want to because I've had an abortion myself (I have, when I was 17, complete with fundamentalist Christian protesters shouting at me), but I actually don't believe those experiences should lend me any credibility."

Her label, Roadrunner, attempted to censor another video in which she appeared in a bra; they thought she looked fat. Palmer blogged about it and legions of young women sent in pictures of their bellies. The label was unmoved. She urged them to drop her. They did. Her first act as a free artist was to write a song about the incident and post it for free on the Internet.

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