*published 24 Nov 2014 on The EDGE
Mummenschanz is a Swiss mask theater company that perform a series of skits or acts all done wordlessly and without music. It is not mime; it is so much better. In fact they are so good that they had a Broadway run from 1977 to 1980 and today the work is wonderfully fresh.
I wanted to introduce ‘Mummenschanz’ to a new generation, so I invited a 7-year-old pal to join me. This is a smart kid who on our walk over regaled me with news of her own iPad and the games she plays on it. I was a tad worried by the low-tech, OK really, no-tech aspect of our planned afternoon, I needn’t have been. She was enthralled.
This year’s show is entitled “The Musicians of Silence” and it is part dance, part puppet show and part theatrical wizardry. The skits are short and so inventive. A giant green pea slithers onto the stage to devour a stuffed animal and then detesting the flavor, attempts to wipe its tongue clean to the giggles of every kid in the packed house at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
Enormous tutus transform into seahorses and swimming fish, a day-glow ribbon dances against a black backdrop to the sound of the whipping fabric moving in increasing swirls and orbits until your eyes continue the images even after the dance is done.
There are moments when the company wisely brings up the house lights, which for the most part are very dim, so that the performers can run through the audience creating a wonderful havoc with antics. They are clad in black velvet bodysuits that even cover their faces, so they can invisibly manipulate the puzzle pieces, or puppet arms and legs, to stunning results. One loses track of the human and only sees the fun.
The company is comprised of Floriana Frassetto, one of the company’s founders, and Philipp Eglie, Raffaella Mattioli, Pietro Montandon and a duo of tech directors, Eric Sauge and Dino de Maio. These six make real magic come to life on the stage. In one skit, two performers arrive on stage wearing gray masks and they proceed to have both a fight and a competition.
One performer in a scary-looking mask attacks the other pulling his ears down into long dog-like appendages. The seemingly injured party rebounds by manipulating her face to create a sweet dog snout, thus trumping the attack. They continue back and forth, pig to owl, to fish to bull, to sheep to hedgehog, to monster and we are thrilled. All of this is done in full view of the audience with no mirrors, only hands to guide and reshape masks on the spot.
Another encounter with transformation has an enormous yellow tube similar to plumbing apparatus in which a dancer cavorts with a big red rubber ball on its base. It rolls and then tosses the ball to the audience. On our afternoon the kids in the front row tossed the ball back dutifully every time. The tube made it clear that it wanted the ball to circulate; I have seen it do that before eliciting much oohing and ahhing. Finally the tube with no face, no words, only a body language, made it clear how dejected it was, and took the big ball and went off stage.
Mummenschanz was founded in 1972 and it is a testament to the power of wordless art and theater that is remains so fresh and can still captivate audiences for the first or the umpteenth time.
Mummenschanz runs through Nov. 30 at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Pl. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-992-8484 or visit nyuskirball.org/calendar/mummenschanz2014