They perform an opera about the Pittsburgh steel industry, an operatic remake of the classic “B” horror movie Night of the Living Dead, and — little surprise here — an opera created expressly to parody the classics.
But Squonk Opera’s BigSmoergasbordWunderWerk — a nonsensical, multimedia gala as rigidly choreographed as it is lustfully plotless — has incited the loudest critical buzz of all the works in the six-member troupe’s repertoire. Even if the gilded wackiness of most absurdist theater tempts your eyes to roll heavenward, the musical inventiveness of this production is rumored to be a deep pleasure its own right.
As befits one whose work hangs on a sharp attention to nuance, soft-spoken Squonk artistic director (and performer) Steve O’Hearn measures his words deliberately.
“There’s very little improv in this piece,” he explained in a recent telephone interview. “[The script] does change, but only when we workshop it.”
The “story” takes place in a restaurant kitchen — and there ends its recognizable realm. Despite the outward appearance of full comedic anarchy, once WunderWerk blooms to life (via giant puppets, rabid vegetables and a revenge-minded chef, among other vehicles), its performers’ real work is just beginning.
“The show can never vary [mid-production], because too many aspects of it are directly reliant on other aspects,” O’Hearn reveals. “One thing leads immediately to the next. It actually matters who stands where at what moment; if I’m not where I’m supposed to be at a particular second, if I can’t get to where I need to be at a particular time, it affects everything. It’s a very delicate balance, very tightly synchronized.”
Nonetheless, intuition plays a major role in realizing the production’s idealistic dream world. Internalizing the rehearsed mayhem, says O’Hearn, is similar to what he calls the “Zen energy” of musicians, who “can play a song because they know it subconsciously, not because they happen to be able to read a certain set of notes.”
Music is hugely important to WunderWerk. In fact, what sets the piece apart from other multimedia theater productions (at least in a definable sense) is Squonk’s “strong aural effects,” according to O’Hearn. “We have music all the way through; it doesn’t stop. … That makes us different.”
Innovative electric drums join the rhythms of the traditional African djembe; an upright bass enjoys a lead part, not only for its sonic contributions, but by virtue of its classic, curvy shape. A show like this offers no roles for minor players, it seems.
“The clash of electric and acoustic instruments is of great interest to us,” declares O’Hearn. “We find it very exciting. The only thing we don’t have is a guitar, because we figured that every band in the country already has a guitar,” he continues, claiming that the omission of that instrument puts the troupe in company of retro-jazz outfits.
Squonk Opera also includes percussionist Kevin Kornicki, singer Jana Lossey, bassist Weldon Anderson, musical director Jackie Dempsey and technical director Casi Pacilio. And though the resplendent trickery of WunderWerk necessitates a deep professional intimacy among its creators, this is a company composed of staunch individualists.
“We tend to work [individually] a lot, and then bring in [the results] when we come together; I do a lot of the designing at home,” explains O’Hearn. “There’s a lot of creative friction, but then … we look for people with different backgrounds, different skills. It makes for an interesting tension when we perform, one that I think is necessary. … In a way, [ours] is a more intense interaction than that of a symphony orchestra, where they’re all together, but reading from a piece of paper [rather than reacting off each other].”
No less crucial to a Squonk Opera show is the more variable offstage energy. Audience participation (the exact nature of which remains mysteriously un-elucidated) is encouraged, even imperative. O’Hearn dismisses the passive experience of traditional theater as inadequate for this type of art; absurdist theater “needs to be more visceral and powerful,” he maintains — an ideal that is best honored by direct performer/crowd contact.
Offering the tastiest possible mixture of eye-candy, urbanity and plain tomfoolery — the better to appeal to theatergoers of all ages — presents an underlying, persistent challenge for the troupe, who measure their success by their audience’s divergent (often wildly so) reactions.
“I never disagree with any of the story lines people like to [draw out of] this piece,” the director notes seriously. “It’s meant to feed whatever part of a person needs feeding.”