Squonk Opera's Burn

Pittsburgh-based Squonk Opera is debuting its new show, Burn, at the City Theatre. Squonk's earlier works have been described as "a delicious danse macabre delicacy of imagery, acoustics and imagination!" and a "kooky, hallucinogenic trip!" Squonk Opera provides an evening, or an hour or so, of visual and aural assault; there is little time for rest during a Squonk show. With Burn, Squonk Opera presents a story with many dimensions, using staging and music that is at times delightfully imaginative and at other times ordinary.

Burn is set in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a mine fire has raged underground since 1962. After a government buy out, the town is almost deserted, but the few citizens who stayed still argue over the fate of what little remains of Centralia. The show follows the trip of Centralia-born Don Alegurski as he heads toward his former home which is at the very center of of the circular area of fire that rages beneath the ground. His trip toward the house mirrors a trip through the circles of Dante's Inferno and comparisons between the story of Centralia and the work of Dante are very directly made throughout the show.

The story of Burn is told with music, lighting, live actors, tear away set pieces, pre-recorded and live video. A technique that Squonk calls Projection Puppetry is used in which live video is projected onto screens that are non-standard shapes, moved around the set, and become a more integrated part of the production than the standard back or suspended projection screen. For instance, in one inventive situation an actor faces away from the audience and hangs a small screen from his back. As he acts like he is driving a motorcycle, a film of a frantic passenger on the back of a motorcycle is projected onto the screen on his back. Some of this works well, some doesn't, such as the screen that is passed along the front row of the audience.

Jackie Dempsey and Jody Abbott
Homeward bound Don (Dave Macarchick) does not appear in person through most of the show, but is seen on video and as a doll-like object. Don as a boy (John O'Neill) introduces each circle with comment via pre-recorded video and voiceover. The principal players in the show are Jody Abbott, playing Virgie, Don's singing tour guide through the rings of Centralia/hell; Jackie Dempsey, as Pale Mary who nearly floats through scenes in her white hoop skirt dress with lights beneath the fabric; Kevin Kornicki, as real estate agent Wilbert Milenka; and Steve O'Hearn, as politician Bob Biggi. As mentioned, Jody Abbott is the vocalist for the show and the new-ageish songs are well interpreted by her. She has a lovely voice, very well suited for the songs. The other four principals do double duty as musicians with Dempsey on piano and accordion, Fay on electric and double bass, Kornicki on acoustic and electronic percussion, and O'Hearn playing flute, Tyrolean trumpet and wind synthesizer. They are all very accomplished, and the eclectic score, often mesmerizing, is substantial enough for an upcoming CD release.

The level of enjoyment of Burn must be heavily dependent on how much one knows (or remembers) of Dante's Inferno. Without total recall, many of the themes and participants of each circle are confusing and pointless, more a non-stop collection of performance art pieces of varying quality rather than a well told story. Squonk has a long history in Pittsburgh, and the company has a following which obviously enjoys what Squonk delivers. For those who seek a less metaphorical piece of book theatre, Burn may set heads spinning.

Burn plays on the main stage of the City Theatre and has been extended through December 30, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, 5:30 and 9pm on Saturdays, and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets are $21 to $32 with senior rush at $15 and studen rush at $10. To buy tickets call the box office at (412)431-CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.

Photo: Ric Evans.

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-- Ann Miner

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