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The beloved Swiss mime troupe makes its belated New Victory Theater debut
The only sounds you hear at a Mummenschanz performance are laughs coming from the audience. Using masks, props, puppets, and their malleable bodies and imagination, the members of the inventive Swiss mime troupe conjure humorous vignettes in complete silence. A pair of people with putty faces that can be sculpted into any expression; a giant foam mouth that devours everything in sight; two creatures crying toilet paper tears -- scenes like these don't need dialogue or music to tickle your funny bone and touch your heart.
Like many Gen Xers, I remember being mesmerized by Mummenschanz as a child while watching the company's whimsical antics on Sesame Street in the '70s. At the same time, they were playing to sold-out adult crowds on Broadway. When co-founder and performer Floriana Frassetto says Mummenschanz is for "ages 6 to 106," she's not exaggerating.
That's why it's surprising to learn that Mummenschanz has never played the New Victory Theater until this month. As New York City's only theatre dedicated to family audiences, the New Vic specializes in presenting all-ages shows that don't just entertain kids, but their grown-ups, too. So why did it take this long for the 47-year-old Mummenschanz to team up with the 24-year-old New Victory?
"Sight lines!" says Mary Rose Lloyd, the longtime artistic director of the New Victory Theater. "I've certainly known about them for years, and I even went to meet with them at their home theatre in Switzerland. With Mummenschanz, it wasn't ever an issue of form. It's that our theatre wouldn't work. We're stacked high with a mezzanine and a balcony, and the stage is intimate: just 30 feet by 30 feet. Certain pieces just would not work with the constraints of our stage, and the audience members in the balcony are looking a little bit down, so you've got to make sure the illusions are maintained." Indeed, Frassetto admits that, "Mummenschanz works at its best when it is seen from the front."
But Lloyd doesn't give up easily. After finding out that some of her staff members in their twenties weren't familiar with Mummenschanz, she realized how important it was to introduce the company to younger generations. (While Frassetto and her colleagues still tour regularly, it's been decades since they've enjoyed the spotlight of Sesame Street and Broadway.) Especially in today's high-tech, screen-centric culture, Mummenschanz's analog artistry inspires audiences to look at the world around them in a wondrous new way. So Lloyd reached out to Frassetto. "I said, 'Look, if you think that you could put together an hour-long show with the favorites and some of your newer work vetted against our sight lines, then we would host you for sure,'" Lloyd recalls.
While the individual pieces in Mummenschanz's RE:PLAY have been seen before -- Frassetto promises "hands" and "slinky-balloons" as well as other classics that are "playful, poetic and interactive" -- the New Victory is presenting them in a fresh context. Edited down to 60 minutes, this is the zippiest show the troupe has ever done (perfect for short attention spans), and Lloyd anticipates multigenerational audiences, with adult fans bringing their children or grandkids.
"I'm excited for young audiences to get to know them, and it will also be fun for parents who remember them from their own childhoods," says Lloyd. "They're spectacular and what they do is singular -- the anthropomorphizing of everyday objects in absolute silence." Of course once Mummenschanz gets going, especially in front of a theatre full of exuberant kids, expect that silence to be shattered. They always end up performing to an accompaniment of gleeful giggles and guffaws.
Top image: Mummenschanz's "Plush Face." Photo courtesy of the Mummenschanz Foundation.
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