By MARK BLANKENSHIP
For over 40 years, Mummenschanz has arguably been one of the most reliable sources of all-ages theatre in the world. With their unique style of mask and prop performance---which uses no speech, sound effects, or even music---they create scenes that are both charmingly abstract and recognizably human.
For instance, a creature with eyes made of blue toilet paper rolls might seem cheekily bizarre, but when it cries by pulling the paper to the ground, like a kid wasting the Charmin, it's also weirdly familiar. The same is true for cardboard boxes that come to life and enormous gloved hands that cavort around the stage.
New Yorkers can rediscover Mummenschanz's particular magic later this month, when the troupe plays the Skirball Center from November 20-30. The show, which is part of a U.S. tour, will feature some of the company's greatest hits, as well as one piece that's been crafted especially for local crowds.
And of course, audiences can expect that signature, silent style. According to Floriana Frassetto, a Mummenschanz co-founder who still performs with the group, it's the key to the company's work.
"People are seeing something abstract that they can relate to individually, in their own way," she says. "We give them this freedom, and it's so beautiful to be able to give freedom in a relationship with the audience. [So often] they are told constantly what to do, what to think, how to feel. Here you'll have four generations in the audience enjoying it in different ways. But they're enjoying it together."
Because the audiences are so diverse---Frassetto says the work is appropriate for people aged 6-106---the performers never quite know what's going to happen. "Every night, in every show, there's a good deal of improvisation," Frassetto says. "You never know who's sitting out there."
She laughs as she recalls an older gentleman who recently had a loud, delighted response to a performer playing a monkey, and she seems delighted herself by the time a child kept a performer's prop and wouldn't give it back for a while.
"Usually, people feel free to react, no matter where," she adds. "Even in Tehran, you would not believe the reactions we got. Women were laughing because they had the freedom to laugh. Because it wasn't something politically tied. It was human."
At the same time, the performers are also dependent on the crowd. Without a score or sound effects to guide the tempo, everything in a Mummenschanz performance is timed to spectator reactions. Bursts of laughter may slow some scenes down, for instance, or a sense of anticipation may speed them up. "I think it's the simple fact that we have no music, so you are our music," Frassetto says. "We are your musical instruments. You are our orchestra directors."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Mummenschanz