What do they put in the water in Pittsburg? In twenty years of shows, Squonk, an ensemble of musicians, artists and technicians, is a company who have pushed the surreal limits of performance, and their return to New York with Majesty and Mayhem is no exception.
The show purports to ask “what does music look like?” but it leaves the answer up to the audience with the advice at the beginning not to look for a story. The program obfuscates further by announcing that the show is “pre-verbal and post-narrative.”
But rather than wasting time during Majesty and Mayhem trying to wrestle out a meaning, it may be better to just sit back and enjoy this wacky spectacle. From the first musical number, “Between the Brain and the Beat,” you may be grateful for the earplugs that were handed out, as the music is anything but subtle. Jackie Dempsey genially leads on piano, dressed in a red satin and black lace gown worthy of a night at the opera and a stark contrast to her silver hair. On the other hand, the bearded Steve O’Hearn, who plays a stunning array of wind instruments, seems dressed for work on a farm, while the singer Anna Elder looks more like a sinister schoolgirl in a blue fifties style dress and severe black bobbed hair. Kevin Kornicki, with more of a classic rocker-look, on drums and hipster-esque David Wallace on guitar round out the band. It all gives the impression that you are watching your eccentric musically talented relatives in a jam session.
While the musicians are unquestionably accomplished, many of the songs sound alike: they are of nearly uniform length, and tend to end abruptly. But Squonk’s delightful multimedia visual tricks make this show about much more than the quality of the music. The view of Steve Hearn playing an electric clarinet while mounted on his instrument offered an intriguing new perspective. Live feeds from cameras, either static or operated by members of the band, were projected on screens at the back of the stage to great effect. Later, the pianist’s hands appeared projected in an arc on a fan shaped structure that rose from the floor in front of the musicians. A wall of blossoming umbrellas that opened to the music like flowers and a keyboard that appeared to float as it was played all underlined the impression that serious imagination was at work.
Most of the visual effects however, were piled into the first half of the show, and after the intermission there was less distraction from the music. This made it hard to ignore the lyrics, written and sung by Anna Elder and largely incomprehensible. She also stripped to a lacy petticoat for one song with perhaps unintentionally comic results.
The show has an alluring charm that might have been better served by a less formal performance space. There is something weird about sitting impassive watching highly rhythmic music being performed. I was wondering if we would be invited to get up and dance or at least have some interaction between the audience and the musicians. But Jackie Dempsey waited until the end to express her pleasure to be back in New York and the applause was polite rather than raucous, which felt rather telling.