Squonk Opera's Mayhem and Majesty | Program Notes

Squonk Opera's Mayhem and Majesty

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You might have heard that the Squonkers' newest show is somewhat stripped-down and nonnarrative compared to their usual extravaganzas. Nonnarrative, yes -- there's no thread of story binding this two-act program of 20 musical numbers at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. But as for stripped-down, M and M is approximately as carefully and opulently produced as stuff like 2008's Astro-rama.

This show, however, has a theme rather than a story, and it's all to the good. The intent is to visualize music, and the band and its rather large production team do this about every way you could imagine, from sound waves on a video screen to a giant pair of ear sculptures mounted on tall poles. The most interesting might have been the sand that vocalist Autumn Ayers sifted onto a little sounding board, which then formed into patterns from the vibrations of a speaker below.

How did we see this from our seats? The staging included frequent ingenious use of video projections. These were not only abstract epics emanating from mounted projectors, but live stuff shot by cameras deployed on stage -- including one tiny camera on wind-man and production designer Steve O'Hearn's wind synth (a sort of electronic clarinet). Others were wielded by band members. O'Hearn typically ran the video camera that was mounted on the end of a long, dolly-mounted boom, which gave us a bird's-eye view of keyboardist and chief composer Jackie Dempsey and percussionist Kevin Kornicki at work, as well as of the sand-covered board doing its thing. 

The band is rounded out by guitarist David Wallace, and the music was as good as ever. Maybe a bit better. Squonk plays a kind of art rock (my closest comparison would be early, Peter Gabriel-led Genesis), and the group ranges with ease from thunderous crescendos to delicate airs.

Dempsey contributed a number of shorter works, like little musical dramas for Ayers and the band. The costumes were funky and steam-punkish costumes, and new visual delights accompanied every song; favorites included Ayers' dance duet with motorized microphone stands, and another piece performed before a wall of photographer's umbrellas that slowly opened and closed like flowers. The show of just under two hours earned the packed house's standing ovation.

Squonk's about the only group in town (and surely among the few anywhere) that does what it does. There's one more chance to see this inaugural run of Mayhem and Majesty, at 2 p.m. Sun., March 21. If you can't make it, hope Squonk gives us another chance to see this splendid show. (They usually do.)

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