GIVE AND TAKE, HOT AND HEAVY That’s how Palmer and Viglione work. PHOTO CREDIT: Carina Mastrocola
Back in her 20s, when she was at Wesleyan College, Amanda Palmer had an idea about adapting the “In the Onion Cellar” chapter of Günter Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) as a theater piece. The Onion Cellar was the club in post-war Germany where benumbed souls who had suppressed their emotional pain went to cry and purge. The club owner, Ferdinand Schmuh, gave them onions to cut to facilitate the process. He had a house band play as well; their job was to transition the patrons back to their regular lives.
Two years ago, Robert Woodruff, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, approached Palmer — the singer/pianist/songwriter of the Boston-based cabaret/punk duo the Dresden Dolls — about the possibility of a theatrical-musical collaboration. He thought Palmer’s was a great idea — creating these wrenching, possibly cathartic, stories that people in the Onion Cellar would tell, with the Dresden Dolls as the band.
Then it got complicated.
Palmer, now 30, and co-writer/friend Anthony Martignetti workshopped a script with the ART last year. The pair envisioned a dark, unsettling musical with stories that involved, among other things, Nazi recollections, the Holocaust, rape, anorexia, and over-medication. Palmer says she was further inspired by Grass’s recent revelation that he was in Hitler’s SS.
That’s not The Onion Cellar that the ART will present at Zero Arrow Theatre December 9 through January 13.
“It’s very different,” said Palmer last week after playing a solo show at the Paradise. “I originally wanted the piece to be highly interactive, very emotionally challenging, an almost morbid environment we were going to play in. You were going to enter the Onion Cellar and you were going to enter a living thing. There was to be a blurry line between who’s actually performing and who’s actually attending. We wanted to make it a confusing, challenging thing. And a risky thing.”
Palmer and Martignetti concur that the scriptwriting process has become “death by a thousand cuts.” At this point, it’s still a work-in-progress. Palmer: “I think the show now is beautiful to look at, but it’s not emotional and challenging. It’s basically using the actors with none of the original story, using the band as a jukebox.”
After last year’s workshop, the Dresden Dolls — the other member is drummer Brian Viglione — went on a US tour with Panic! At the Disco and followed that with an extensive headlining world tour. Palmer wrote bits for the play during downtime. When the Dolls got back to Boston, they started to rehearse with the cast, dramaturg Ryan McKittrick, and director/co-writer Marcus Stern.
“They paired me up with Marcus,” Palmer says, “and I realized he and I had very different thinking. Marcus didn’t come into the project with an agenda — he came in to be supportive, to help guide my vision. But I think my vision and my ideas chafed so much, he found a lot of what I wanted to grapple with very uncomfortable. It was really fucking heavy stuff. He wasn’t interested in attacking that sort of material.”