Writing about Squonk Opera is like writing about a Roman candle, one that happens to come with a rhythm section. The troupe, now some 16 years old, is sui generis: Pittsburgh's only hybridizer of art rock and performance, and expert at blending surrealism, high camp and careful craft for the masses. Squonk's new free outdoor show, which I caught last night, nicely summarizes how its penchant for spectacle hobbles its shows' narrative momentum -- and how it doesn't matter that it does.
Here, the Squonkers -- who've feted Night of the Living Dead, Westernized the Minotaur (Rodeo Smackdown) and lovingly spoofed their hometown (Pittsburgh: The Opera) -- attempt to contact extraterrestrial life on our behalf. They've taken over one end of Schenley Plaza with a stage and a big satellite dish; the production also includes a crashed flying saucer; an anthropomorphized supercomputer (puckishly named "PAL 9000"); a giant silver hand; a set of false limbs; and lots of funny hats. The 70-minute show's like a big furry B-movie, with lots of trippy video (the satellite dish is the screen) and a dozen or more musical numbers, most of them pleasingly thunderous compositions for drums (Kevin Kornicki), bass (Ryan McMasters), electric guitar (David Wallace), keys (Jackie Dempsey), wind instruments (Steve O'Hearn, with a Dempsey Squonk co-founder) and vocals (Autumn Ayers).
The songs, many of them instrumentals, spin as tightly and kick as hard as Squonk ever has; of course, a few of them also stop the sketch-like story dead in its tracks, not to mention a couple of prop-based sequences that fall flat or go on too long.
In the end, though, this show (which concludes with 8 p.m. performances tonight and Sat., Oct. 18, weather permitting) satisfies. Even if the structure feels raggedy at times, there's a conceptual flow, with lots of hilariously straight-faced pigeon-technical jargon ("calibrate the Fibonacci sequence") giving way to a big on-stage and –screen party, and then to a manual override of out-of-control technology. Best of all, Squonk has retained its knack for comedy. The group manages to snap from a lovely ballad to madcap humor, and to smartly leaven the show's frankly stated anti-commercialization theme with well-timed quips. Astro-rama mightn't succeed at bringing all of mankind together, as the story puts it; but most of the few hundred people lounging on the damp Schenley Plaza lawn seemed united in the belief that Squonk had done it again.