Squonk inflates its new show at Arts Festival

Squonk inflates its new show 'Pneumatica' at the Arts Festival

Back in 1958, a giant in lingerie rampaged through California in the cult classic "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."

This weekend, the Three Rivers Arts Festival is party to an attack of a 40-foot woman, this one more benign.

Unless you're horrified by the sound of accordion.

The mad geniuses behind the inflatable blue Lady Pneumatica are the members of Pittsburgh-based performance troupe Squonk, which follows 2012's "GO Roadhouse" with its second premiere at TRAF.

"Pneumatica," running Friday through Sunday for seven performances, is a street theater piece "made of air, powered by air, and about air."

"Essentially," says Squonker Steve O'Hearn, " 'Pneumatica' was a work written by Heron of Alexandria 2,000 years ago, and he was the first guy who invented automata and he steam-powered to power them with different kinds of air power, which is all fluid dynamics ... tell me if I'm getting tedious."

Why, never. That's a job best left to Jackie Dempsey, his partner in crime for the past 20-plus years in Squonk (formerly Squonk Opera). When they sat down to devise a concept for the latest Squonk production, air came right to the surface.

"Our instinct when we go to create a new show is very zen: 'We're outside, what can be the theme or concept?' " Mr. O'Hearn says. "For us, it seems like a crucial time to think about our atmosphere and the air, and there's also all the wonderful poetic meanings of air. Because to us, it's generally 'nothing.' It's the 'nothing' between things. In fact, we now learn as a planet that it's a very important something."

Lady Pneumatica is the icon and set piece for a show without lyrics. ("We've always treated lyrics loosely and probably without a whole lot of respect," Mr. O'Hearn says.) Backed by guitarist David Wallace, bassist Nathan Wilson and drummer Kevin Kornicki, Ms. Dempsey will play "lungcordion," which will be the Lady's lungs, while Mr. O'Hearn works the electronic bagpipes, which he imported from Spain and believes to be the only set in America. Both, of course, are air-powered.

"We've always been intrigued by inflatables and air-driven things," he says. "Because we're primarily a touring group, inflation does give you a great way to do big things. And I'm not going to name any names, but there are a lot of big one-line jokes that are an inflatable thing."

(Take that, DUCK!)

"You see it and 10 seconds later, you take a photo and that's it, there's no interest. This entire show is based on things inflating and deflating. It is the act of air moving and air powering both volume and movement."

The show is not without technical challenges, says Mr. O'Hearn, as "there are combinations of things that cost thousands of dollars and a few cents each."

Squonk will take the show to Johnstown and Wheeling the following week and present it at about a dozen sites around Pittsburgh this summer, for free, along with workshops for kids on pneumatics. As is the business model, next summer Squonk will take it on tour, like "GO Roadhouse," which has been performed 100 times in 15 states.

In keeping with its festival format, "Pneumatica" is a fast-moving half-hour show.

"What we find at festivals is because of people's attention spans, and the nature of wanting people to move, short repeated shows are much more effective."

Performances are at Point State Park at 7 p.m. Friday; and noon, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com.

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