When I was a little girl there was nothing I wanted to see more than Mummenschanz at the Bijou Theatre. To me it appeared to be a magical, strange show that made no sense yet appealed to me in ways I couldn’t put into words. Which was possibly the point, as Mummenschanz was a completely wordless production of a string of vingettes using a form of theatre that eclipsed mime but obviously paved the way for Blue Man Group.
It was 1976 and I’d watch the commercials with a wide-eyed fascination – the toilet paper “crying” and the faces that changed expression as each new sheet of paper was revealed underneath old sheets that were torn off and crumpled up – discarded. What luxury! To litter in the name of art! It was something so beyond my environment and experience that I couldn’t even understand what this troupe of performers was trying to do. All I knew was that it was exciting and engaging in a way that I had yet to see in my short life. Sadly they were gone from New York long before I was ever old enough to buy my own ticket and go see the show for myself.
So imagine how I felt to hear that I would be getting a chance to review the limited New York run of Mummenschanz now playing till January 8th at NYU Skirball Center which features Mummenschanz founders Floriana Frassetto and Bernie Schürch as well as Raffaella Mattioli and Pietro Montandon. More than 30 years later we’d all gotten a little older but it’s amazing how much this fascination has held up over the years – both in these performer’s ability to weave it as well as the audience’s ability to receive it.
You know how – at the zoo, or the aquarium or even the Museum of Natural History – you’re drawn to that one display that’s dark and mysterious? The one that, from afar, just looks like a dark landscape of emptiness? You’re not quite sure what’s happening there and you want to take a closer look, to understand this creature in its own habitat, so you hold your breath in order to keep still, to not disturb what’s lurking, and you advance carefully. Then, magically, it appears from the depths – it’s moving in a way you’ve never seen anything move before: alien, ethereal, part fantasy and part familiar. And where all that meets – that’s Mummenschanz.
The show is a series of small vignettes, one after the other. On the surface the show doesn’t make a whole lot of sense intellectually, and yet each vignette has a solid arc with characters, a simple but identifiable activity, sometimes a conflict, and a very obvious conclusion. Some are very simple, others are rather complex, but all are completely without any language. Sheets blow in from the wings, becoming faces before blowing away again; something that’s either the biggest ball of mud or a nose from one of the Presidents of Mount Rushmore becomes a heart, then a face, then (purposely) deflates as quickly as an ill-fated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon only with much more grace and control. Sticks confront each other, windows dance, giant hands count the audience, a large pea eats (then spits out) a colorful doohickey. Some things confuse, some things delight, some things alarm, some things enchant, some things make you wish you could don a giant fluffy balloon suit and settle the world’s disputes on this stage.
Without a doubt, while this show is entertaining for adults it is absolutely captivating for children. Throughout the entire performance the young ones in the audience couldn’t contain their astonishment, delight and unadulterated glee at what they were seeing. Perhaps we grownups were just as mystified, but no longer indulge in that uninhibited outpouring of wonder the way children do – who will ooooh and aaaah with reckless abandon.
More of the fun for adults lies in the “how are they doing that?” factor. I must admit more than once I became absorbed by just how many “Mummens” (as I refer to them in my head) were manipulating these large pieces. One? Two? Three? Are they curled up on top of each other in that thing? Where are their feet? Are they standing on their head? Exactly what is going on in that giant balloon? The children, on the other hand, just gave themselves over to the experience and enjoyed the performance for what it was – pure fun in the from of giant hands, giant bean bags, slinkies that play balls with the audience and other things that have no name at all.~~~
Mummenschanz NYU SKIRBALL CENTER 566 LAGUARDIA PLACE at Washington Square NEW YORK, NEW YORK . Tickets: WWW.SKIRBALLCENTER.NYU.EDU 212.352.3101 or 866.811.4111 . Remaining Performances: Dec 28 – 30 @ 8pm Dec 31 @ 4 & 7pm Jan 2 @ 2pm Jan 4 – 6 @ 8pm Jan 7 @ 7 & 10pm Jan 8 @ 2 & 7pm