Long before there was Blue Man Group, nouveau cirque, and dozens of genre-bending mask / mime / movement troupes, there was Mummenschanz. To see their show back in the seventies was to be at the birth of entirely new theatrical possibilities. Founded in '72 by Bernie Schürch and Andres Bossard (both Swiss, both Lecoq graduates), and the Italian-American Floriana Frassetto, Mummenschanz was a commercial hit, popular enough to merit a three-year Broadway run.
The commitment to this long New York run led to the training of other actors to work as understudies and to perform in simultaneously touring international companies, giving birth to a sort of Mummenschanz franchise. Now they're back on the road again in a 40th-anniversary show, with a cast of four that includes two of the three founders, Bossard having been lost to AIDS in 1992. I caught them last week at NYU's Skirball Center.
Before Mummenschanz, mask theatre usually meant actors wearing character masks, often drawn from such classical traditions as commedia dell'arte and Balinese dance. Schürch, Bossard, and Frassetto took mask work further into sculpture and the plastic arts, creating full-body, puppet-like creatures — not just humans, but animals and even abstract shapes. Sometimes the fun was trying to locate the performer's actual body; they were flexible enough (at least back then!) to make you puzzle over whether or not they were bending forward or backward.
"We invested all our intelligence and personality into the visual aspects of Mummenschanz. Mummenschanz is the glases, the pillows, the cylinders, the boulders, the foams, the figures, the soft masks — all these strong images that we were able to impress upon people."
If you haven't seen their work or need a refresher, here's a short video with a few seconds each from their greatest hits:
And here's a video clip about their working with a variety of physical materials, from a pretty good documentary, Mummenschanz: The Musicians of Silence.
"We are craftsmen of imagination... musicians of silence... our aim is to be sculptors of the imagination." — Floriana Frassetto
Here is what is by far my favorite piece, in which two performers rapidly and deftly reshape their gooey masks into new identities.
I remember loving this piece but also wishing there were more to it, or that the technique could be applied to stronger subject matter. I even fantasized directing a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros in which the transformation from human to beast was done this way. Well, I never did, but feel free to steal my idea (with fawning full credit).
I certainly was not the only big fan of this piece: elements of it show up in Devil's Ball, an award-winning 1987 music video by the band Double (also Swiss), featuring Herb Alpert on trumpet and showing a strong debt to the imagery of the surrealist painter, René Magritte. Quite the mélange!
My reaction to the current Mummenschanz show was more mixed than I anticipated, my admiration tempered with a yearning for new material and bolder content. Dance companies such as Pilobolus (four decades) and Momix (three decades) also pioneered new movement vocabularies, and continue to tour today, but they are constantly generating fresh material while keeping a few of the classics in the repertory.
For me, too many of these pieces do little more than show off their visual cleverness. If there are two characters on stage, they briefly interact but not much happens and a minute later the piece is over. At its weakest, it reminds me of the less interesting pantomime from that same era, when some thought escaping from a mime box was a deep existential statement. But most didn't, and pantomime was equated with kids entertainment — it was good for them because it stimulated their imagination — but meanwhile became an easy target for derision by wise-cracking adults.
That being said, this show is still a visual feast and inventive as all get out, so of course you should see it if you get the chance, and all credit to Schürch, Bossard, and Frassetto for their ground-breaking work.
Click here for the Mummenschanz web site.
Click here for their performance calendar.
The 2010 New York Times review is here.
The current New York Times review is here.
A less enthusiastic review from Backstage.
And here for a Jim Moore VaudeVisuals post.