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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!
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.
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.
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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