Indoor stage or outdoor? For Squonk Opera, it seldom has been a question: For most of its 27 years, the troupe has focused on open-air extravaganzas, filled with its melodic art rock and big, surreal props.
For instance, the group’s five musicians performed one recent show, “Cyclesonic,” while perched atop a matching set of pedal-powered platforms. Squonk’s “Lady Pneumatica” features an iconic, air-powered female figurehead looming above the stage, 40 feet tall, beckoning with inflatable arms. Several Squonk shows have debuted at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, at Point State Park.
But for a moment after the 2016 presidential election, Squonk reconsidered its approach.
“We were in pretty grim moods, and not feeling like making a big outdoor spectacle, a joyful production,” says composer and keyboardist Jackie Dempsey, Squonk’s co-artistic director with fellow co-founder Steve O’Hearn. “And so we actually toyed with the idea of going back into the theater and making an indoor show, a darker show.”
“But then we thought, ‘What would be the point of that?’” she said. “What we really wanted to do was to get people to be joyful and happy again together.”
The result is “Hand to Hand,” a show that takes its title literally. Its signature set pieces are a pair of custom-built, 20-foot-tall inflatable hands – puppets whose fully articulated joints are operated marionette-style by means of long lines.
O’Hearn said “Hand to Hand” is the group’s response to the powerlessness members felt after the last presidential election. The hands are symbolic.
“For us, they’re simply about power and the ability to do things,” he says. “We made the giant hands kind of to represent the powers that you have such trouble controlling and emotionally dealing with.”
On a Sunday in mid-July, a few dozen Squonk supporters got a preview of “Hand to Hand” in the group’s rehearsal space, indoors at an industrial park in Irwin.
The hands are purple. Fully inflated, they flank the tall, tiered metal riser that holds the five musicians: Dempsey, O’Hearn on a variety of electronic wind instruments (including bagpipes), guitarist David Wallace, drummer Jeremy Papay, and bassist Nathan Wilson.
The hands were fabricated by Amsterdam-based Air Works, which specializes in theatrical inflatables for the likes of Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones and the Olympics. (O’Hearn said Squonk got a discounted price.)
During the show, the hands, mounted on wheels, begin interacting with the audience. “We like to empower the audience to think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’” said O’Hearn. “And it’s true, they could do it.”
Squonk shows are typically non-narrative comic, a bit surreal, even thought provoking, and “Hand to Hand” is no exception. Among other props and surprises, expect the concept of “opposable thumbs” to be given literal life.
But “Hand to Hand” is unusual in at least one regard: its venue.
In its 27 years, Squonk Opera has played Broadway and off-Broadway. Its first big theatrical show was in a Pittsburgh scrapyard. It’s performed in 35 states and on three continents (including a month-long residency at a massive beer festival in China). In 2011, the group took an unlikely detour onto live TV by competing on “America’s Got Talent.”
This year, Squoank was slated to play its hometown EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta this weekend. The troupe was looking forward to the gig; like fellow co-founder Dempsey, O’Hearn is a Pittsburgh native, and he said Squonk’s work reflects their roots.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge, and it’s important to us to recognize, that we’re inherently Pittsburgh artists,” he said. “That there’s a character to our art, even though it tours internationally, that comes from Pittsburgh, and its love of parades, fireworks, stuff like that. And its self-deprecating humor that you don’t find in arts imported from the two coasts.”
With the Regatta's abrupt cancellation Tuesday, Squonk was looking for alternate venues for the Pittsburgh premiere of "Hand to Hand." No doubt the show will play here eventually, but in any case, it already has a life beyond Pittsburgh.
The show world-premiered in Baltimore in July, and has several U.S. dates lined up. The most notable is likely in September, in Washington, D.C., as part of the debut festival for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ new outdoor arts campus, REACH.
The gig is indicative of the group’s national reputation, bolstered by its extensive tours with shows including “Pneumatica” and “Cyclesonic.”
“I don’t know if there’s another company quite like them in the United States that does these outdoor shows that work for parades, or works for multisensory environments outside, in such a dynamic way,” says David Kirkpatrick, director of education programs and productions at the Kennedy Center. “Basically when you work outside in a public space, you’re accessible to everyone. And so that sort of inclusiveness of their work is really exciting.”
This story was updated on 7/30/19 at 12:45 p.m. to reflect the cancellation of the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.