CAMBRIDGE -- Somewhere in "The Onion Cellar," with its crashingly gorgeous music, its poetic images of bottled tears and scrawled sorrows, and its sleekly decadent Weimar/Vegas milieu, there's a fascinating play trying to get out. If this collaboration between the American Repertory Theatre and the Dresden Dolls provides only glimpses of that potential work, it's enough to make us long to see it in a more coherent form.
As it is, it's a beautiful mess. In the Zero Arrow black box theater, wonderfully transformed into a nightclub setting complete with tables and a cash bar, the Dresden Dolls -- Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione -- unleash a storm of clotted chords and pounding rhythms in an irresistible display of the physical energy and emotional intensity that have made them one of Boston's fastest-rising bands. Palmer's sinuous voice weaves hypnotically through her viscerally satisfying melodies, anchored and launched by her fierce work at the keyboard and Viglione's hyperkinetic drumming.
But we aren't really in a nightclub, and this isn't a rock show. It's some hybrid of rock and theater, and it's in the attempt to fuse the two worlds that "The Onion Cellar" too often stumbles around in the dark. Various characters appear, during and between songs; many of them seem to be grieving a wounded relationship between parent and child. It is really hard to say, though, whether these story lines connect to one another -- or even whether they're supposed to.
Take the remote, Jameson-sipping father played by Jeremy Geidt. Advance word tells us that he's the owner of the Onion Cellar, a cabaret based on a chapter of Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum." You wouldn't know this from anything that occurs onstage, but you would probably glean that he is the father of the young woman in the blue dress and the ex-husband of the angry woman packing up her daughter's things.
But how do they connect to the woman in a bear suit? Or the knit-capped geek named Onion Boy? Or the broadly caricatured Wisconsin tourists with a secret grief? Once or twice it seemed as if all of this was happening inside someone's head, but whose? And, if so, what would that mean?
At times the parade of deliberately odd characters can make it feel as if you've wandered into a mediocre music video, circa 1985: It's as if they're adorning the music, rather than connecting with it or through it, and so even their periodic outbursts into cathartic monologue feel grafted on. In particular, the long reminiscences by a red-suited MC (ART regular Remo Airaldi) of being punished by his father for crying and singing seem weirdly displaced. Another context might give them emotional punch. Here it's as if he's doing stand-up tragedy.
There are moments, as when that grieving ex-wife and mother (a typically strong Karen MacDonald) tells of her daughter's childhood habit of collecting tears, when irritated confusion gives way to mystified delight. Of course the image is odd and faintly absurd, but it's also touching.
What "The Onion Cellar" does, more than anything, is remind us of both the strengths and weaknesses of a company like the ART. By inviting collaboration among wildly diverse artists, some of them outside the conventional bounds of theater, the ART infuses its repertoire with fresh energies, unexpected and illuminating juxtapositions, and moments of real art. But it also exposes itself to the dangers of unloosing creativity without finding ways to channel it; at its worst, this kind of theater can devolve into solipsism and preciosity.
Both at "Wings of Desire" and at this show, I overheard people saying, "That's the best thing I've seen in a long time." I also saw people scurrying out, shaking their heads in confusion and annoyance. Which camp you land in on a given night may depend as much on your own predilections and emotions as on the work itself. This time, I found myself firmly in both camps.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.