Squonk Opera Lends Two Hands At The Regatta

7 hours ago

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.

Squonk Opera performs "Hand to Hand": multiple performances daily Fri., Aug. 2-Sun., Aug. 4, at the Three Rivers Regatta, Point State Park, Downtown.

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.

Visitors at an informal preview of Squonk Opera's "Hand to Hand" manipulate one of the puppets.
Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

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.”

But until this year, Squonk had never before played its hometown EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, where “Hand to Hand” will get its local premiere with multiple showings Fri., Aug. 2, through Sun., Aug. 4.

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.”

Squonk’s usual venues are arts venues and college campuses. The venerable Regatta, by contrast, is made to showcase vehicles going fast on water; supplementary entertainment usually includes things like live country music, extreme-sports demos, and sand sculptures.

“I think it’ll be really exciting to show our work to a different kind of audience,” said Dempsey. “Because everywhere we go, a lot of people don’t know who we are, and so we’re a surprise to a lot of people. And I think that’ll be the case at the Regatta. And that’s a great thing, I think, to do in our hometown, to still be surprising people who are our neighbors with what we do.”

What’s more, “Hand to Hand” already has a life beyond Pittsburgh. The show world-premiered in Baltimore in July, and has several U.S. dates lined up after the Regatta. 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.”

At the Regatta, Squonk Opera will perform “Hand to Hand” on the lawn on the Downtown side of the portal bridge in Point Stage Park. Admission to the Regatta is free. For showtimes, see the Regatta website.