‘Pieces of Amber’ channels the ‘Sleep No More’ experience at doris-mae

November 6, 2013

Since opening in 2011 under the name Harmon Art Lab, 14th Street’s lowest-profile art space has stubbornly resisted the “gallery” label. Even after Harmon — a collaboration between painters Peter Harper and Thomas Drymon — closed, Drymon’s 2012 resuscitation of the space as doris-mae (a reference to his mother) was characterized as a “curatorial project,” not a gallery. In its short existence, the second-floor hole-in-the-wall, which houses a tiny showroom and an even tinier project space for experimental work, has hosted painting, sculpture, installation, performance and video, much of which has addressed, in one way or another, the theme of identity.


Co-directors Jennifer Restak and Josef Palermo, left and right in foreground, direct performers Blair Boston (l) and Jason Barnes (r) in "Pieces of Amber."

Beginning Friday and running through Nov. 17, doris-mae will host “Pieces of Amber,” its most ambitious departure from the standard gallery fare yet, offering up what it describes as an “audience-immersive, interactive experience challenging the limits of experimental theater, provocative performance art, conceptual installation, and other artistic forms.”

What exactly does that mean? To find out, I caught up with emerging arts impresario Josef Palermo, who conceived, wrote, co-directed (with Jennifer Restak) and acts in the piece.

According to Palermo, “Pieces of Amber” has its roots in a diary Palermo discovered when his roommate abruptly moved out of his Columbia Heights apartment in 2010, abandoning many of her possessions and saddling him with back rent. After his initial dismay subsided — assuaged by Palermo and his friends reading aloud from the journal, and having a laugh over some of its juicier tidbits — Palermo realized that there was a theater piece here.

All the words spoken by the character of Palermo's roommate Amber (who is being played, in a bit of bold double-casting, by Blair Boston and Jason Barnes) are taken straight from the diary. Barnes, an experienced performance artist, represents what Palermo calls Amber’s “almost masculine” hubris and flamboyance; Boston, a theater novice, was chosen to convey the same character’s girlish innocence and vulnerability. Palermo portrays himself, but will mostly facilitate the audience’s engagement with the work, which he hopes will include the freedom to explore the performance space itself, looking inside drawers and examining props. In order to create an intimate environment, each performance of "Amber" will be limited to 20 audience members. Tickets are available here.

For the run of the show, doris-mae has been transformed into an incarnation of its former life as a residential apartment, complete with bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and living area. Mixed-media sculptural installations by emerging visual artist Bahar Jalehmahmoudi will appear throughout, underscoring what Palermo calls the theme of “ephemera as containers of memory.” As the performers inhabit the space, audience members may chose which one to follow, in much the same way as the audience was allowed to wander through “Sleep No More,” a version of “Macbeth” that was a hit in New York two years ago when staged inside three abandoned warehouses. “Pieces of Amber” also includes projections and recorded voice-overs.

Despite its strange provenance, Palermo insists that his piece is not a form of artistic revenge. When he first started working on it two and a half years ago, Amber herself coincidentally walked into the coffeehouse where Palermo was drafting production notes and, he believes, gave her implicit consent when Palermo told her that he was writing a play about her. “It better be true to me,” she said.

Palermo says it is. He also says it's faithful to something more universal. Despite using Amber’s own words — which reveal a young woman ruminating about sex, weight, bad relationships, a childhood history of molestation and other hopes and fears — Palermo says the work is almost as much a portrait of him as of her. Like Amber, he is biracial. And in Amber, he says, he recognizes someone looking for love and selfhood, and someone running away from the judgment of others. That’s a condition that Palermo says may feel familiar to other people too.

“I was given this great source material, entirely by circumstance,” says Palermo, who hopes that his project will have a life beyond doris-mae, and resonance beyond its subject.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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Maura Judkis · November 6, 2013