It Came From Pittsburgh: Downtown Devoured, Squonk Puts The Bite On Broadway

It Came From Pittsburgh: Downtown Devoured, Squonk Puts The Bite On Broadway BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk, a production from the Pittsburgh-based troupe Squonk, is off -- way off -- the usual menu of theatrical options available on Broadway. In its outlandish mix of music, machines, and monsters, it has more in common with the off-the-wall horror films that used to roost in long-gone Times Square grindhouses than anything in, say, Saturday Night Fever or Annie Get Your Gun. Put another way: In many Broadway shows, the performers chew on the scenery. In a Squonk show, the scenery chews on the performers.
A scene from Squonk.
A scene from Squonk. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk, a production from the Pittsburgh-based troupe Squonk, is off -- way off -- the usual menu of theatrical options available on Broadway. In its outlandish mix of music, machines, and monsters, it has more in common with the off-the-wall horror films that used to roost in long-gone Times Square grindhouses than anything in, say, Saturday Night Fever or Annie Get Your Gun. Put another way: In many Broadway shows, the performers chew on the scenery. In a Squonk show, the scenery chews on the performers.

What's going on at The Helen Hayes Theatre? (And, one might ask, at The Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY, where the Olivier winning musical Honk! is playing -- did the First Lady of the American Theatre ever squonk or honk in her life?) It may be a case of the lunatics finally taking over the asylum: Over-the-edge performance pieces with onomatopoeic names like Thwak, performed by groups like the Umbilical Brothers, have been staples downtown since before the Blue Man Group started showering audiences with toilet paper. New Yorkers first saw this Squonk show at lower Manhattan's P.S. 122, where it played last summer and attracted what proved to be a crucial rave review from The New York Times. When BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk opens February 29, however, Squonk will be the first of this underground movement to erupt on the Great White Way.

This prospect has already unnerved some theatregoers, who fear that a potential influx of groups with names and/or attitudes straight from the funny pages -- from places like Squonk's hometown of Pittsburgh -- will be as destructive to the legitimate stage as the Clampetts were to Beverly Hills when they moved in.

"We have had hecklers, who feel that what we're doing is an affront to Broadway and high art performance," says Squonker Steve O'Hearn, the troupe's artistic director, who conceptualizes its sets, puppets, and costumes, and plays an electric flute onstage in full view of would-be tomato hurlers. He co-founded Squonk in 1992 with musical director Jackie Dempsey, the group's pianist and accordion player. "We're only in previews, and already we've gotten a hate letter," says Dempsey. "It arrived addressed to 'Squonk, Helen Hayes.'" She reports that other indignant responses have been sent to its website.

For the uninitiated, logging onto www.squonkopera.com may offer some clues to as what's got some observers' goats. What can be said for sure about this piece, is that O'Hearn, Dempsey, and the three other onstage Squonkers (Jana Losey, who sings, T. Weldon Anderson, on the double bass, and Kevin Kornicki, who handles percussion), perform a phantasmagoria of light, scenic, and sound effects swirl around them. O'Hearn and the sixth, unseen Squonker, production stage manager Casi Pacilio, have put together a show designed to the eyeteeth -- literally, as eyes and teeth play a big part in its design. Its motif is food: If Dame Edna has the show that listens, Squonk has the show that eats. A reporter's notes, scrawled amid swatches of deeply saturated lighting over the course of a preview of the 90-minute production, confirm, though, that a few of the courses are uncertain: "Severed heads on trays." "Indian music? Irish music?" "Jawbone monsters -- they dance." "Assorted orally fixated imagery." "Bizarre X-ray interlude with audience member." "Singer (like Natalie Merchant? Bjork? Enya?), unsettled by monsters, swallowed by giant teeth, digested, regurgitated on dinner table as entree (?), rides chicken-wire horse." And this was only a preview -- the breasts of the Venus figure weren't spurting water as they should, and the crowd also escaped a typical evening's bombardment by marshmallows from one of the show's mechanical contraptions.

Afterwards, some fellow audience members fled quickly into the night. But more than a few remained in their seats to discuss the curious experience, and one woman cackled in uncontrollable hysterics. "I don't mind that we offend people; I love when the audience gets grossed out, then laughs, then finds it beautiful," says O'Hearn, who is thrilled to be outraging the Broadway elite.

"I think most Broadway shows are s---, just absolute shlock," he declares. "If you encountered them on TV, you'd turn them off in a second. Movies and TV do naturalism much better than theatre: There, you can have a fight in the street in Chicago and it looks perfect from every angle, but on the stage it just doesn't look real no matter how much money and effort you put into it. Why bother? I love that we're confronting that, by trying to do the best work we can do on a Broadway stage. It wouldn't amaze me if we weren't successful, but it is so exciting to be the first to do it. We would have had a secure success if we had just stayed downtown like the other five or six groups like us, but we've all already proven that that can be achieved. The question for me is, when does Broadway, the heart of American theatre, start catching up with us?"

What does his co-founder think about Broadway? "I'm an old-fashioned musicals kind of gal," Dempsey laughs, characterizing the yin and yang that shapes Squonk.

"Jackie is the personable member of our group; I'm the pedantic and offensive one," says O'Hearn, who has elaborate tattoos on both his arms that "symbolize stage right and stage left, the vegetative and the emotive, the masculine and the feminine, and the light of the intellect." He also quotes Gertrude Stein in conversation and has many an additional theory to share about the modern stage.

But pretentious he is not. He and his fellow Squonkers, added as the troupe expanded from its roots, have an unassuming, "oddball kind of Midwestern nature" that keeps the light of the intellect from burning out of control in conversation.

And he is what he eats. Appetite is a natural subject for a Squonk show, as O'Hearn demolishes three eggs, two big sausages and more at a 5:00 dinner at a Times Square diner on a snowy February evening. "We're working 18 hours days, six days a week; mealtimes and seasons become irrelevant," he laughs.

Squonk is no stranger to long days. Formerly, "and unhappily," an industrial designer, O'Hearn teamed up with Dempsey, then a piano teacher, to form what was originally called Squonk Opera. He supplied the visuals, she the eclectic music, "from lush orchestrations to minimal, a mix of cultures and influences that range from Debussy to Philip Glass to Ani DiFranco," says Dempsey. "The 'Squonk,' perhaps, comes from the noise my untutored saxophone makes -- and now every group has an onomatopoeic name," O'Hearn sighs. "The 'Opera' we dropped because it made us sound too elitist, or gave people the wrong idea."

Indeed. While in the last two years operas based on A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From the Bridge, and "The Great Gatsby" have emerged, only Squonk has attempted one based on "Night of the Living Dead."

"That was our first commissioned piece, and very important for us," says O'Hearn. "We were averse to getting grants, or going the non-profit route, or becoming too arty or humorless in our approach." The idea came from the City Theatre of Pittsburgh, where the homegrown horror film is especially revered. With the support of its director, George A. Romero, Squonk interacted with screenings of the film as it unspooled, "cutting it up, interfering with it, interrupting it, enacting the characters onstage. It was constantly interactive, and had the visceral reality of something happening right in front of you. That's what theatre does best."

The piece, which played in a large theatre, was a few steps up from the bars and coffee houses that spawned Squonk. The troupe did other Pittsburgh-themed shows, gradually grew in size to its present six members, and hit the East Coast on the touring circuit. "We played this one arts center in a very rural, hippified part of upstate New York, and as part of our contract we had to judge a pet parade," O'Hearn recalls. "This one lady brought her kid, who wasn't allowed to own a pet, but she had him come up to us anyway, holding nothing. She said, 'This is little Johnny, with Fido -- isn't he cute?' He was so embarrassed and appalled to be showing us an invisible pet."

Seeking visibility in New York City, Squonk rented P.S. 122 last August and mounted BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk, which the group has been developing over the last two years. The space was full to bursting with O'Hearn's weird props. "That was the smallest venue we had ever performed it in," says Dempsey. "The Helen Hayes is so luxurious."

The path to luxury, though, was forged from heartache. After the summer run ended, O'Hearn searched for an Off-Broadway house...and here the word "sleazeball," a popular synonym for "producer" in New York theatre circles, enters his usually lofty vocabulary. Backstage maneuvering, he says, muscled Squonk out of its promised berth. Squonk looked sunk in Manhattan. Then a failure of Epic Proportions happened at the Helen Hayes. "Nine shows wanted in after it closed, but our lead producer, Bill Repicci, had our Times notice to show its general management. And they wanted something that wasn't the standard fare. It's a big leap of faith for them, and I'm pleased to have such a perfect stage and layout for the show to inhabit," O'Hearn says, pleased at having leapfrogged from Off-Off- to on Broadway.

The big time, however, brings bigger challenges. "Squonk used to be carving out a prop in my basement, then trying it out with Jackie's music," O'Hearn says. The new production has a number of new people involved on the production side, providing direction and choreography, and backup castmembers have to be hired and trained, no easy matter given the demands of the music and the interaction with the props. Dempsey has the mixed fortune to be a member of the show's Jawbone Glee Club, monsters with snapping jaws for heads and hands, and the kicksteps of Busby Berkeley chorines. "They're freaky, and they're fun, but it's just so painful to be one," she says. "Really very uncomfortable as we work on perfecting the costuming. We all have bumps and bruises, and I'm just dying for a good massage."

Others are dying to get in on what is perceived to be the next big thing on Broadway. London and Las Vegas are interested in the troupe, and O'Hearn has already nixed one merchandising tie-in. "I don't want anyone to think this is primarily a marketing effort," he says. "We're not 'A little De La Guarda [another unclassifiable troupe, one he admires], a little Lion King, and a beverage that goes with it.' We are of our times, but you can't be a product like that."

O'Hearn hopes that Squonk will continue to shake up Broadway. "It has strong flavors, which the theatre needs more of." If it does not emerge as the next Cirque du Soleil, which he calls the "success model" for this type of show, so be it. "Even if it fails, catastrophically, it'll be great fun," he says.

Dempsey already knows what she likes most about being on Broadway. "After all these years, we have our own individual dressing rooms. That is unbelievable to me!"