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.

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.

 

The pair took cues from such New York performance artists as Laurie Anderson. Squonk’s first major production was Night of the Living Dead: The Opera, which debuted in 1995 in Pittsburgh. Soon after, the company debuted off Broadway—then on Broadway—with its madcap fantasia Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk.

“We found some inspiration in Chinese opera,” says O’Hearn, who is now 52 and lives in Russellton, Pa. “In Chinese opera, the audience boos the bad guys and cheers [for] the good guys. It’s like a football game. They fart and belch and pat each other on the back. We wanted that kind of democratic accessibility.”

Since its Broadway splash, Squonk traveled the world—from Germany to South Korea. Today, Squonk continues to tour its many shows across the country. Each concept is different from the last: Inferno was a retelling of Dante’s hell, using the coal-fire town of Centralia as a setting. Rodeo Smackdown was a political fable that placed the ancient Greek minotaur in the Wild West.

Mayhem and Majesty is about sound. Like Bigsmorgasbord, there are no plots or characters in Mayhem. The Squonkers wanted to create a simpler show, more of a rock concert than a musical. Mayhem is still heavy on spectacle, but the audience is encouraged to free-associate during the performance. The show behaves like a three-dimensional Rorschach test.

“We’re really thrilled when we talk with people after the show,” O’Hearn says. “They think [the show] is about this or that. They start to tell their own story.”

“Human beings are programmed to create meaning for themselves,” says Autumn Ayers, Squonk’s lyricist and lead singer. In general, Dempsey, who’s 44 and lives in Turtle Creek, composes a piece of music “with several movements,” and then Ayers writes lyrics and makes suggestions.

Ayers is also an acclaimed solo artist, but she has relished Squonk’s communal spirit since joining in 2007. “All the shows are collaborative,” she says. “But [for Mayhem and Majesty], we all brainstormed about everything. I feel really proprietary and proud. It’s the most collaborative thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

Mayhem and Majesty may be a simpler production, but the spectacle is as epic as ever. Like all Squonk shows, Mayhem is fairly physical, with five of the 10 touring performers migrating around the stage and moving set pieces themselves. In a rousing finale, the audience is forced to look up at a scrim fan with moving images projected on the surface. The visuals are so overwhelming that they threaten seizure.

At its core, Squonk Opera is a proud Pittsburgh company. No matter how far the company travels, the group’s always happy to return to its home turf. The First Night show was a resounding success—with three separate performances, an incredible feat for only four hours of prep time.

“There’s something about Pittsburgh that we love,” O’Hearn says. “There’s something about our art form that is inherently Pittsburgh. Work like ours can’t be produced in the hothouse culture of New York or L.A.”

As for the future, O’Hearn says the company is wary of becoming “commercial” in the style of Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group—producing shows that are stunning to behold but rarely evolve. Squonk is ever-changing.
“We feel authentic doing it,” he says. “Our hope is to just keep creating new work.”

(Mayhem and Majesty, New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. March 31-April 3: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Also, preview party Wed., March 30 at 6 p.m. $20. Info, tickets: 412/320-4610, newhazletttheater.org, squonkopera.org)
 

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