Diary Performance Pieces of Amber Qualifies as Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Drama doesn't always make for good theater. Interpersonal conflict is at the heart of art, but drama—in the most popular and parroted sense of the word—is something else. Drama means passion and pettiness in equal parts that you don't want to hear about in equal measure. People don't want no drama, and reasonably so. At its best, art offers up the problem of other people without descending into drama—work drama or relationship drama or family drama. Pieces of Amber is not art at its best.
Actually, that's an understatement. Pieces of Amber is a small-scale disaster. One of its co-directors is now distancing herself from the production, and the performance's unhappy subject is also its unwitting playwright. Many hands helped in bringing about a production that acts as a public shaming, one fueled, seemingly, by a private vendetta. An experimental theater-ish piece that closes its run on 14th Street NW space doris-mae on Nov. 17, Pieces of Amber should serve as a reminder that hell is other people who share your group house.
Mind you, that's the message that its author, Josef Palermo, wants you to take away from the show. Palermo came to the source material for Pieces of Amber after splitting his Columbia Heights home with one Amber Walson, a 32-year-old Columbia Heights resident. After moving in with Palermo in 2010, Walson moved out after only a week. It would take a small-claims court case to determine who owes whom what, but whatever the reason, Walson moved out abruptly, and when she did, she left a notebook behind.
Today, three years later, Palermo has drawn Pieces of Amber almost whole-cloth from Walson's personal writings. Over the course of the performance, which takes place in a second-floor apartment space, two actors—newcomer Blair Boston and performance artist Jason Barnes—read excerpts from Walson's journal as they truck back and forth in the ramshackle space. Enter Walson, the show's silent and nonconsenting partner, who says that Palermo is alternately stealing her pieces for his own and shaming her for her private life.
The writings that Palermo discovered, as she told me and the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan, are works of creative fiction that Palermo is ripping by reading verbatim. As O'Sullivan explains in his blog post about this mess, and as Palermo himself attests, he took Walson's notebook to be a diary, a work of nonfiction. Perhaps because it's more defensible (from a legal perspective) to read someone else's diary in front of an audience than to lift that person's work of fiction. (Though Walson told me in a followup email that she wasn't entirely honest while talking to reporters about her lost journals—some of the more haunting accounts are autobiographical.)
It's a catastrophe. Some might think they're both in on it. Though, through tears, Walson tells me that wasn't the case.
Pieces of Amber is set in real space, with audience and performers co-mingling in an apartment set that might have resembled the Columbia Heights home that Palermo and Walson shared for that fateful week. The production explicitly boasts that it channels the immersive experience of New York's site-specific Sleep No More, and while that’s a grossly inflated claim, the apartment backdrop is a reasonable departure from the black-box theater.
So while production designer Andrew Herndon earns a star for the lived-in feel of the set, which is strewn with empty tallboys and unread art magazines, the actors don’t do much to inhabit it in turn. Boston and Barnes cycle through the house’s rooms just enough to keep the audience shuffling; they barely interact with each other at all. It’s quite evident from her affectless recitation that Boston, who marks her performance debut with Pieces of Amber, has little acting experience. It's harder to say why the more experienced Barnes, who wears his role better than the silky robe he keeps slipping out of throughout the play, agreed to be a part of this strange and problematic work.
Virtually every line of dialogue spoken in the performance originates in the collaged spiral notebook that Walson says she wrote between the ages of 18 and 25—something she never considered to be a finished screenplay for someone else to execute. ("This was not the show I had originally envisioned," says co-director Jennifer Restak, who tells me over email that the decision to use the diaries as the "sole primary source material" was not her call.) The measured, almost sculptural quality of the notebook and its collaged pages seems to weigh against the notion that it is strictly a diary. But really, to mull any of the performance’s details as evidence is to get lost in the intractable logic of roommate drama. Fictional or not, the text is plain enough: It’s the sex-obsessed copy of a young adult woman struggling with her identity, sexuality, and confidence. And indulging in these themes, too. Just like people do in real life.
Maybe Palermo saw something of himself in Walson's writing, after he had a laugh about its more honest and explicit details. And maybe that's why he has divided her diary readings between a man and a woman. But generosity and understanding end there.
In Pieces of Amber, the sex-shaming of the text's narrator proceeds mechanically, as the actors read bare passages without ornament or interpretation. This narrator's relatable worries about being one lonely body in this meat-based world are made abnormal by Palermo’s clinical spotlight. He has built an entire production around the shock of discovering a woman writing honestly about lust, desire, and abuse—episodes she maybe did experience personally, maybe didn't—seemingly because she allegedly owes him rent money. Anyone else would've returned or discarded her diary. This smacks of revenge both petty and cruel.
Along with the sex-shaming, Pieces of Amber details a fair amount of person-shaming. One passage, in which the narrator relates a fantasy about her own (quite extravagant) funeral, is enlarged for inspection near the door along with a portion of the Wikipedia entry for "hubris." A portion of the play that takes place over a G-chat conversation is projected onto a wall; plainly readable is an email from Palermo, entreating Walson to pay up, as the landlord is calling. (This email is only dated last week, but never mind that.) A page relating the narrator's abuse of crystal meth to stay awake between classes is left out in a conspicuous place for the viewer to find. Palermo himself reads a passage in which the narrator describes being molested.
There are some positives in the show: Wax-y booklike sculptures by Bahar Jalehmahmoudi are an incongruous addition to the slovenly apartment set. And had she consented to its contribution to the play, Walson's chronicles might count as brave and bracing and honest. But Palermo's role in Pieces of Amber, if it isn't prosecutor, could only be generously described as that of a curator.
And too much drama is passed off in this town by people who adopt that self-congratulatory title—"curator," as if it provides a pass for being a bad neighbor. As if the backstage can be so easily substituted for the stage. As if curating gives someone the right.