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.