Theater Preview: Squonk Opera's "Mayhem and Majesty"

Squonk Opera returns to town with Mayhem and Majesty, the company’s most surreal project yet. No story. No characters. Just pure sensation.



Mayhem and Majesty, a hypnotic celebration of musical sound, will take the New Hazlett Theater in March.

Photos by John Altdorfer

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Let’s go back in time to two months ago.

It was 3:21 p.m. at the Byham Theater, and tensions were high. The broad stage was cluttered with lights, cables, a piano and a full drum kit. Technicians strode purposefully across the black floor, vanishing behind curtains and reappearing with new props and tools. Time was ticking. This sound check would have to go quickly.

“We only had four hours to set up,” a Cultural Trust employee whispered backstage. “The first show starts at 6:30.”
But the artists of Squonk Opera do not cave under pressure. Even on Dec. 31, just hours before the First Night festivities were set to begin. Even with the abbreviated, half-hour version of their full show fast approaching.

By 6:30, their guitar and accordion would be sound-checked. Video projectors would be aimed. Screens would be readied. Umbrellas would be armed to automatically unfold. And the show’s oddest set pieces—two tall tripodal poles topped with enormous silver ears—would stand in the wings ready to be brought onstage.

That was back on New Year’s Eve. It was Pittsburgh’s first taste of Mayhem and Majesty, Squonk Opera’s latest creation. This month, the full productions of Mayhem will be unleashed on local audiences and will blow minds.

Mayhem and Majesty is a tsunami of sound and light. From the get-go, the stage blazes with multicolored strobe effects. Videos are projected onto vast screens that scroll up from the stage. Improvised jump ropes whirl between performers. For a company that’s always specialized in surreal sound and image, Mayhem and Majesty is its freest production yet: a hypnotic celebration of musical sound and what that sound does to the soul.

Squonk Opera started in 1993 when composer and musician Jackie Dempsey met multimedia master Steve O’Hearn. They were both from Pittsburgh, studied and lived elsewhere, and they were both interested in starting an experimental theater company here in the city.

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