ART Scores A Hit With 'The Onion Cellar'

By: Dec. 19, 2006
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'The Onion Cellar'Conceived, written, and designed by Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Marcus Stern, Christine Jones, Anthony Martignetti, and the cast of 'The Onion Cellar'

Directed by Marcus Stern, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Justin Townsend, Sound Design by David Remedios, Set Design by Christine Jones

Cast (In Alphabetical Order)
Remo Airaldi
Claire E. Davoew
Thomas Derrah
Brian Farish
Kristen Frazier
Jeremy Geidt
Merritt Janson
Karen MacDonald
Amanda Palmer
Neil Stewart
Brian Viglione

Performances: Now through January 13 at the Zero Arrow Theatre, Cambridge, MA
Box Office: Online at or call (617)-547-8300 

Is it a play? A rock musical? A cabaret? A series of overlapping vignettes set to a Dresden Dolls score? A performance piece? I'm not quite sure what to call The Onion Cellar, but I do know that I absolutely loved every minute of it. This show is by far one of the best I've seen the American Repertory Theatre produce, and if you're up for experiencing something a bit off the beaten theatrical path, The Onion Cellar is a must-see.

Without giving too much away (because the surprises in this production are part of its charm), The Onion Cellar basically takes five different storylines and plays them out to a Dresden Dolls soundtrack. What first seems like a mess of unrelated tales slowly comes together as the show progresses, and—pardon the obvious onion reference—as the layers of the show and its characters peel away, we're left with a poignant statement on the similarities that tie us together. The Onion Cellar is a show about life. It's about human relationships. And above all, it's about the defining moments that change the way we see ourselves and our futures. 

This is not a lazy theatre-goer's show, and if you want to sit in the audience and have a storyline spoon-fed to you, I'd recommend you see a production that's written for the masses. The Onion Cellar is an engaging piece of performance; it forces you to think about what you're seeing. This aspect certainly serves as one of the show's strengths, and makes the entire theatrical experience worthwhile.

Now if you're not a Dresden Dolls fan, well, that's quite a shame. I would recommend seeing this production for the sole purpose of introducing yourself to the masterful punk-cabaret stylings of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, two of the most original musicians I've seen in a long time. Truth be told, I've heard a few Dresden Dolls numbers before this, but The Onion Cellar was the first time I've seen them perform live, and I was not disappointed. Viglione is easily one of the most talented, energetic, and charismatic drummers in the business—his extended drum solo near the end of the performance is one of many highlights of the production—and as for Palmer, well, where do I even begin? The singer/songwriter/pianist/actress/performance artist has a hypnotic voice I could listen to for hours on end without a second thought, and I only wish more artists had the presence she does on stage. Palmer is strong, confident, powerful, and entrancing, leaving absolutely no doubt that she's a performer who can't be pigeon-holed into merely one category.

Another facet of the show's charm is its cabaret-style set, designed by Christine Jones. The last time I saw a show at the Zero Arrow Theatre it was your traditional blackbox, with a small stage and seats surrounding the stage; now throw that image out the window, because the atmosphere for The Onion Cellar is considerably more interesting. You're not in a theatre for this show, you're in an old-fashioned decadent performance hall, complete with table seating, a full-service bar, decorative lighting, and staging that takes place all over the venue, from the metal scaffolding, to the metallic-backed performance space, to the velvet-draped stage, to the aisles of the audience floor (think Cabaret at Studio 54 with a distinctly unique twist and a predominantly black and red color scheme, with a few dashes of blue and purple fluorescent thrown in for good measure). This set up lends itself to interesting staging, to say the least, and Director Marcus Stern uses the space brilliantly.

The ensemble cast helped write the dialogue for the production, which is equally witty and heart-wrenching. The Onion Cellar will probably make you laugh, it may make you cry, and it will most definitely strike a chord and resonate with you well after you've left the theatre. There are so many levels to this tale that one can relate to, and it's clear that we're not simply viewing a show—we are part of the show.

The sound was quite good for such a small space, though I rather wish at times that Palmer's microphone was turned up because she was, unfortunately, sometimes overpowered by her own piano stylings and Viglione's drumming. When the balance was on The Dresden Dolls were amazing, but on the songs when her voice was overpowered by a sea of musical accompaniment, it was really a shame and took away from their performance and the overall production.

Overall, though, this is just a minor qualm with an otherwise fabulous production. If you don't like The Dresden Dolls (or being in a music hall concert atmosphere) at all this might be a tough show to get through, but for those of you who don't fall into this category, The Onion Cellar is a production that is definitely worth trekking to Cambridge to see. It's a fun and exciting piece of performance in what is fast becoming a mundane and predictable theatrical landscape, and it certainly gives me hope for the future of new works. All I can say is, thank goodness for The Dresden Dolls and the A.R.T.—The Onion Cellar is easily one of the best shows I've experienced in quite awhile. 


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