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A CurtainUp Review


to eat with a silver tongue make a dish fit for a king
chief cook did cook and blanch a menu full of things
bite one was full of dirt
bite two was full of fire
bite three did quench the hot
and sent the platters to the sky
spoon stir me everything
-- from Squonk

Just what is Squonk? Well it's a musical -- sort of. The sound is a blend of new age eeriness, melancholy and surprisingly pleasing melody. The lyrics (co-written and performed by Jana Losey) are more absorbed through fantastical stage images than any clearly discernible words. If you don't catch the above lyrics which are printed on the cover of a CD from the show, you'll nevertheless get the drift in the first of a buffet of eighteen ingeniously staged musical dreamscapes. Despite a libretto with remarkably apt titles, however, don't expect to make sense of what you are seeing and hearing.

Squonk's only theatrical rhyme or reason is that it exerts the same sort of weird fascination that has grade school youngsters everywhere obsessing over Pokemon characters. Like those characters, the amalgam of props, puppets and music evolve and grab a hold of those willing to suspend their expectations of what an evening at the theater should be. You may need one of those Pokemon obsessors with you to help you get into the mood of its senseless, vague scariness.

The zaniness begins even before you settle into your seat, with Jackie Dempsey, as if sprung out of the poster at one side of the front section of the orchestra, ambling up and down the aisles playing her accordion. (There's a little box for tips clipped to her rear). One of the other Squonkers goes in and out of a red double door at the rear of the stage placing covered platters onto banquet style tables. As the house lights dim, Weldon Anderson and Steve O'Hearn stumble down the aisle, acting like disruptive latecomers but merely engaging in the first of several audience participation bits of business.

Food images are everywhere, starting with the no longer advertised subtitle, BigSmörgasbordWùnderWork, which translates as a buffet of wonderful things. One of the banquet tables soon makes way for a baroque bandstand encrusted with food motifs and with a giant horn of plenty protruding from one side. There are plenty of other wacky images such as a nightmarish industrial steel plant, a hapless audience member manacled to an X-ray machine that reveals his innards complete with a missing flute. My own favorite (see the illustration) was a giant psychedelic head, its eyes rolling and a tongue that ominously lashes this way and that.

If I had to define it, I'd say Squonk is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland done up as a music video. It also reminded me of Shockheaded Peter though that unforgettable little extravaganza not only had a plot but outdistanced Squonk in genuine charm, artistry and kid friendliness. While I'm fault finding, the fourth-wall breaking bits don't work well. Judged as a whole, the spectacle grows tiresome after the first fifty minutes which means the smartly conceived, food-conscious craziness doesn't provide quite enough sustenance for the show's 80-minute duration. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that this sort of downtown sensibility (it started life at P.S. 122) doesn't translate easily to a conventional theater venue, even one that's small by Broadway standards (499 seats).

Squonk also has much in common with the annual New Music Festival at Tanglewood in the Berkshires which attracts flocks of enthusiasts but tends to send traditionalists scurrying for the hills. A mini version would in fact make a terrific special event to help festivals like this attract the young audiences over whose small numbers there is so much hand wringing.

If all this sounds as if I'm championing this form of plotless and often wordless performance art over "real" theater, I'm not. The Helen Hayes is a theatrical gem where in a perfect world new plays would have a chance to find a large enough audience without the pressures of being in a larger theater. The Pulitzer Prize Winning Wit and the justly praised Dinner With Friends have had to seek their audiences in similarly sized houses well below forty-second Street. The Helen Hayes would have also suited the delightful l Dirty Blonde. Yet that show ended its brief run at New York Theatre Workshop without a second home in sight. But, as these worthy plays should have a place in the prime theatrical neighborhood, so free enterprise demands that a show like this gets to strut its stuff beyond the Off-Off Broadway boundaries.

Will Squonk succeed as a legitimate theatrical offering? As I've already indicated the P.S. 122 style edge tends to lose some of its sharpness when transplanted to a glitzier neighborhood. The producers are gambling that non-English speaking tourists will embrace it in lieu of a crash course at Berlitz which would enable them to practice their English on some plays in which language is a factor -- and that it will draw uptown audiences who prefer their cutting edge downtown shows within the comfort of the mainstream theater district. Even if the gamble pays off, I doubt the Squonkers will have the sort of extended ride some of the starred shows below have enjoyed. Nor do I think that the Tubes and the Stompers and the De La Guarda aerialists will be packing their bags any time soon to nudge language driven theatrical fare out of the neighborhood.

(All are distingished by little or no plot and dialogue. * indicates currently running shows.)
Shockheaded Peter
* Blueman Group-- "Tubes"
*De La Guarda
Fool Moon
Do You Come Here Often?
*The Donkey Show

Created by Steve O'Hearns and Jackie Dempsey
Music by Jackie Dempsey with Squonk
Directed by Tom Diamond
Music Director: Jackie Dempsey
Image Book by Steve O'Hearn
Lyrics by Jana Losey with Jackie Dempsey Choreography and Movement: Peter Kope and Michele De La Reza
Cast (in order of appearance): Jackie Dempsey (Keyboard & Accordion); Kevin Kornicki (Electronic and Acoustic Percussion, Sound Texture); Steve O'Hearn (Flutes, Electronic Winds, Many-Belled Trumpet); Celtic Flute) T. Weldon Anderson (Double Bass); Jana Losey (Vocals)
Casi Pacilio (Production Stage Manager)
Sets, Puppets and Costumes: Steve O'Hearn
Lighting Design: Tim Saternow
Sound Design:Bernard Fox
Projections: Steve O'Hearn with Casi Pacilio and Nick Fox-Geig Running time: 80 minutes without intermission
Helen Hayes, 240 W. 44th St., (7th/8th Avs.), 239-6200
Performances from 2/08/2000; opening 2/29/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/25 performance

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