On Broadway, there are two kinds of folly. One is the stupidity of producers who think they can make a fortune with a bad show. The other is the glorious recklessness of producers who challenge the conventional wisdom about what works on the Great White Way.
The arrival at the Helen Hayes of the Pittsburgh-based music-theater group Squonk is a very rare example of this second kind of insanity. Bringing the show in from Off-Off-Broadway may well be a suicidal gesture, but it has a touch of magnificence.
Avant-garde theater of the kind that Squonk creates has a built-in resistance to mass appeal. Watching it is like being at a wild, drunken party. If you're sufficiently intoxicated, it sweeps you away. But if you stay sober, you will find it excruciating.
For every member of the audience who, like this critic, finds the show a heady delight, another will find nothing but noise and nonsense.
It would be stretching things a bit to say that "Squonk" is about anything. Though the broad theme is food - eating and being eaten - the sounds and visions are drawn from a bewildering range of sources.
The music, performed by the cast and sung by the ethereal Jana Losey, is a rich brew of Irish techno-folk and Indian melodies, laced with strong dashes of Philip Glass, heavy metal and industrial noise.
The action, instead of telling a story, evokes a dazzling variety of myths and moods.
There is a strand of Greek classical imagery. The four elements - earth, fire, water and air - are juggled. The Horn of Plenty, transformed into the range of horns played by Steve O'Hearn, remains a constant point of reference.
But there is also a strand of Celtic myth. The image of the severed head that continues to sing, used most notably in the theater by William Butler Yeats, is revisited.
And then there are imaginative raids on Hollywood horror. Grotesque monsters and nightmarish machines stalk the stage.
For those who can't enjoy what they can't understand, this kaleidoscope of images will be at best confusing, at worst offensive. But for those willing to go with the flow, "Squonk" is mesmerizing. Far from being anarchic or self-indulgent, it has the feel of a disciplined, coherent work.
Essentially, this comes from the way the company integrates music, design and movement into a single, seamless whole. While the images are spinning off in many directions, the staging remains tight, precise and rigorous.
And the range of images is matched by the variety of the feelings the show evokes. "Squonk" becomes a breathless journey through an ever-changing emotional landscape, from humor to horror and from disgust to ravishing beauty.
This, then, is a show for those with minds open enough to let in a blast of refreshing weirdness. There may be cheaper ways to blow your mind, but almost all of them are bad for you.
It's a weird game, this "Squonk," a 90-minute musical fantasy now at the Helen Hayes Theatre. A woman with an accordion (Jackie Dempsey) and a gent in a jacket (Kevin Kornicki) start the proceedings. They're joined by a hippie on a violin (T. Weldon Anderson), a flautist (Steve O'Hearn), and a young blond woman who is liberated from a chair to seek a cornucopia (Jana Losey).
She'll sing and rise atop the cornucopia to gaze at the stars. And this is only the start.
"Squonk" is a Pittsburgh product that is presenting its take on life in a Broadway house. The fit is not perfect. It's about the body and the things it eats and fears; it's about the dreams of escape.
And it's a kooky, hallucinogenic trip that wanders all over the place.
It's not the disciplined, lucid play that creates the allure of "Stomp" or "Blue Man Group." It's by a Pittsburgh group that has created such works as "Night of the Living Dead: The Opera," and tries for the blend of the contemporary and the fantastic.
It's mildly OK as a hippie take on things, but without the genius that lies behind the film "Night of the Living Dead" or the work of John Sayles.
The creators of the show are O'Hearn, flautist and trumpeter, and Dempsey, pianist and accordionist; they collaborate with the others.
What they collaborate on is a vague drama, mostly musical, in which a bizarre universe threatens all until it loves all. An animal is lulled to sleep; a huge, menace shows up. "Make a dish fit for a king, spoonster, stir me," is sung by one.
This sort of thing has a goofy, relaxed sort of flavor. It's not, I suspect, a Broadway sort of flavor -- more East Village before dinner at that groovy new macro place.
Visiting a little show called ''Squonk'' during its brief run in the East Village last summer was like walking into a neighbor's garage and discovering a homemade fun house. Staged in one of the upstairs rooms of Performance Space 122, ''Squonk'' was clearly a product of obsessive, original minds and limited means.
Its performers, five fashionably nerdy-looking musicians from Pittsburgh, might have been plucked from the audience. (This was the East Village in August.) And for 80 minutes of crude but persuasive spectacle, they managed to lure those watching them into an alternative reality. It was a funky, friendly and somewhat precious experience, a chemical-free New Age-style head trip.
If life were an MGM movie from the 1940's, the plucky souls of ''Squonk'' would be discovered by big-time producers and whisked off to a glamorous theater on the Great White Way. Well, for once life has imitated a Judy and Mickey musical: ''Squonk'' opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway. Unfortunately the requisite MGM-style happy ending has not been provided.
To put it simply, ''Squonk'' has shrunk, almost to the point of invisibility. Placing this small, eccentric charmer in a Broadway house is a brutally misguided transplant.''
So much of the original appeal of ''Squonk,'' the collaborative creation of which has been overseen by Steve O'Hearn and Jackie Dempsey and which is directed by Tom Diamond, had to do with its creators' control of the environment in which it was performed. Presented as a goof of a fever dream in a surreal restaurant, the show kept springing surprises that required the audience to be close at hand and, often, part of the action.
There were flashlights beamed directly into theatergoers' eyes, for example, and a giant tongue that reached past the front row. There was also the sense that the performers might materialize anywhere at any moment.
The music, too, an Enya-esque, narcotically repetitive blend of the ethereal and the sinister, seemed all-pervasive, so insistent that it clouded the perceptions. And there were assorted trompe-l'oeil tricks, involving items like eggs and electric blenders, that required close viewing to work.
Seen from the far side of a proscenium, on a stage that looks to be the same size as the entire room at P.S. 122, the illusions of ''Squonk'' shrivel, and its shaping visual metaphors become incomprehensible. There are some newly enlarged mechanical monsters and an eye-catching backdrop showing an endless landscape of restaurant tables, but everything now registers at a far, bewildering remove, even the music.
None of the talented ensemble members (T. Weldon Anderson, Ms. Dempsey, Kevin Kornicki, Jana Losey and Mr. O'Hearn) have learned how to stylize and enlarge their presence and gestures in compensatory ways. The free-form dancing and the staged battles of dueling musical instruments now come across as clunky. The overall effect is of listening to someone recite last night's dream over the breakfast table. If it's not your dream, you're likely to feel bored or embarrassed.
The criminal shame in all of this is that had ''Squonk'' been reincarnated in a smaller, appropriately configured theater, it might have thrived as the kind of quirky show event that tourists could wander into and feel they had come upon something quaint and bohemian (e.g., ''Blue Man Group,'' ''De La Guarda''). As it is, the production sadly echoes the real estate agent's credo: Location is everything.
If encountered somewhere exotic -- a dive bar in Reykjavik, say, or in Pittsburgh, whence it so surprisingly hails -- perhaps the funky whimsies of "Squonk" would be more impressive. But on Broadway, where it has been very unwisely moved after a run at P.S. 122 in the East Village, this eccentric multimedia salad looks sadly forlorn. It's as if that brooch little Ashley so cleverly devised in kindergarten out of Elmer's glue, macaroni shells and gold glitter has been placed in the window of Van Cleef & Arpels, with an eye-popping pricetag attached.
The 70-minute performance is subtitled "BigSmorgasbordWunderWerk," which suggests both the food motif that recurs throughout the show as well as its perplexing and vaguely foreign air. "Squonk" aims to provide a feast of imagery to tickle the eye, ear and occasionally funny bone -- a giant cornucopia figures prominently -- but the buffet on offer looks pretty sparse when it's housed in a proscenium theater and priced at up to $65 a ticket.
The music is the most prominent and most accomplished element. Played onstage by the performers on electronically amplified instruments, it combines snippets of oft-repeated melody to hypnotic effect, processing a grounding in Philip Glass through various ethnic music influences.
Vocalist Jana Losey sounds a bit like Bjork and looks a bit like that young woman scrambling about Berlin so tirelessly in the recent movie "Run Lola Run." Losey herself gets a fair bit of exercise as she clambers ethereally about the stage and its pieces of ramshackle statuary. You can't understand a word she's saying (well, maybe a word here and there -- I picked out "spoon" and "stir me" at one point), but she has an appealing, otherworldly presence and a ghostly, Enya-esque voice that suits the music. (By the way, she makes her own clothes, too, "using contemporary and recycled fabrics," according to the program, which would explain the A-line bedspread she sports at one point.)
If the show's creators had devised imagery of sufficient wit, ingenuity and sophistication to complement the music, monotony might not set in quite so quickly. But most of the show's visual elements, which blend a little puppetry with scrap-heap statuary and video, are silly without being particularly impressive. At one point an elaborate contraption scoots onstage, driven by one of the Squonkers, who moves a lever that turns the whole thing into a giant hand mixer; Losey holds a bowl beneath the beater and sings for a while. Later the same machine turns into a sort of furnace, glowing red as another Squonker prepares to toast hot dogs in it.
There is a little audience participation -- one man is brought onstage, and an X-ray appears to reveal he's swallowed a clarinet. A Squonker then pretends to remove it. It's all sweetly loony and whimsical, but the scale of the effects is too small for even the Helen Hayes Theater, Broadway's smallest house. What must have dazzled -- or at least charmed -- in a tiny East Village performance space isn't so dazzling here.
"Squonk" is an entertainment in the tradition of such plotless, visceral shows as "Stomp," "De La Guarda" and "Blue Man Group." The producers were presumably hoping that by moving it uptown, to a larger theater, profits could be maximized. But downtown theater events are popular with their audiences precisely because a) they're downtown, and b) they're not really theater. They can't be re-potted on Broadway and be expected to flourish in quite the same way.
"Squonk," at least, looks likely to wither quickly. In the annals of Broadway follies, it won't earn much more than a footnote, but what an odd footnote it will be.