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Flash Review 1 2-28: Squonk Shrunk
When Bigger is not Always Better

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Lest the following be misunderstood, let's get this out of the way first: If you didn't see Squonk during its extended run at Performance Space 122 last summer, and can afford the ticket, you should definitely check it out at its new Broadway home, the Helen Hayes, where I caught it Saturday. Jana Losey--a singer and lyricist whose ethereal but muscley voice combines the best features of Enya, Sinead O'Connor, and Bjork--is worth the price of admission alone. So the following is not so much a negative critique of the show--I am a confirmed Squonkhead, having seen the piece twice at P.S.--as an examination of how a bigger venue can affect the audience experience--can even make it regress. And of how, and why, a show which seemed so huge downtown can seem so much smaller uptown.

Squonk is hard to define. That its greatest feature, the singer, was credited as the choreographer for the P.S. run tells you a little. (Peter Kope and Michele de La Reza were brought in for the Broadway production's choreography and movement, bringing each individual's physicality to a higher level, making the whole much more seamless, and adding some inventive dance business.) Start with a rock concert. Then take the type of special affects/showmanship that a group like Earth Wind & Fire might add to gird the music, and multiply that to the nth power--with scenery and props that aspire to the level of Julie Taymor/Michael Curry in "The Lion King."

Ah yes, "The Lion King." If "Rent" ("They say that I have the best ass below 14th Street") proved the salability of Boho culture on Broadway, "The Lion King" set the standard for the type of special effects that consume not just the stage, but the entire theater. A few minutes into the first act, you realize that a life-sized elephant puppet is coming down the aisle. The second act opens with actors and dancers, spread throughout the auditorium, holding giant sticks with birds atop them, which fill the ceiling at the New Amsterdam.

In the confines of P.S. 122, where the seating risers descend onto the stage, Squonk's puppets, Survival Research Laboratory-type found metal devices, makeshift cylindrical shadow puppet screens, filmed water dance, and accordion banked in a sort of sea-shell/banquet/fountain--all of these accoutrements are outsized in a modest-sized downtown theater. Seen close up, just a few feet from you, like Losey's soul-wrenching singing and electrifying persona, they knock you dead. They also have a sort of homemade charm. That the acting of the other four musicians is not as multi-layered and charismatic as Losey's is not so noticeable because, I think, at a theater like P.S. 122, we accept that the idea of theater can be carried out in a variety of ways, that don't necessarily need to include high acting.

Plus, I don't know an audience that is more ready to suspend disbelief than that at P.S. 122. It's easy and, in a way, necessary to do there; you enter the theater, and spatially you are more or less part of the show. When the Squonkers went into the audience at various points, for volunteers, to share weird concoctions made in an on-stage blender, or to tap everything and everyone with drumsticks, it could only barely be construed a breaking of the fifth wall. There's no room for a wall there!

Now imagine yourself in the Helen Hayes, your traditional proscenium Broadway theater, which, staging-wise, usually hosts much more conventional work. The performers are no longer in your face and below you, but above you and safely removed. The forays into the audience are still there, but seem much more proscribed and safe. And the sets, whose homemade quality made them endearing for their cleverness in a small black box theater, seem less marvelous and over-weaning on a Broadway which has now known Taymor and Curry.

Losey's voice still lifts, and her charisma projects into the larger theater, but the acting of the others, with the exception perhaps of music director and pianist/accordionist Jackie Dempsey, seems more noticeably not of Broadway caliber.

Perhaps most emblematic of how things that were so smashing at P.S. seem off-Kilter on Broadway is the final moment. At P.S., Losey emerges peddling a metal sort of horse-bicycle centaur. On her head is a helmet and goggles with, at either side, feathers which spread into fans when Losey pushes a button on her chest. As the ultimate example of their homemade style effects, at P.S. this moment thrilled in the "what now!?" sense. At the Helen Hayes, Losey actually lifts the headdress out of a spot downstage center first, before returning on her chariot, so the movement, already less powerful in the larger theater, loses much of the surprise element as well.

Some of you out there may be asking: Why is he comparing one production with the other? Isn't that kind of like complaining because the movie is different from your favorite book on which it is based?

I am listening right now to the soundtrack of "Rent." That work is about, more than anything, emotional journeys. The story, the book that told it, and the actors that portrayed it had the power to move not just the small downtown theater where it started, but a large Broadway house. Good acting and eternal stories can do that. I don't question the decision to take Squonk to Broadway--who wouldn't jump at such an opportunity?--I merely suggest that we should not assume that bigger is better. As my choreographer companion at "Squonk" Saturday suggested, the character of the space in which a work is performed is integral to the work itself, and should be considered.


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