Friday, December 7, 2012

The magic of Mummenschanz at 40

Your inner child is closer than you think - in fact, no further than the nearest Mummenschanz show, which actually is playing through this Sunday at the Schubert Theatre (thanks to Celebrity Series).

The venerable Swiss troupe is celebrating its 40th anniversary - hence the title of their current tour, "40 Years," which draws on the best of four decades' worth of imagination, observation, and inspiration.  (The show features founder Floriana Frassetto, who I believe has appeared in every Mummenschanz performance ever, and is still going strong, as well as newer hands Philipp Egli, Pitero Montandon and Raffaella Mattioli.) As always, the show is silent - even though it's not exactly mime - and as always, it's composed of a handful of mummers, concealed in a good deal of fabric and foam, or a bit of wire and paper, and a large helping of whimsical resourcefulness.  Mummenschanz was always about transplanting mummery into the bright colors and forms of post-modern pop, so it's no surprise that beneath their mod veneer, there's something timeless kicking around in their routines; the human body always haunts even their biggest, boldest costumes and conceits - and thus so does humanity itself (in both the ideal, universal sense, and the flawed, fleshy sense, too).

So Mummenschanz is cute, but never "cute" - while always playful (literally - they're fond of volleyball with the audience) they're rarely sentimental.  Bouncing, joyful, gentle, humane - yes; but also wry, sometimes sardonic - and occasionally even sweetly bawdy.  When one character whose head is a plug meets another whose face is a socket, you're pretty sure what's going to happen next (and the kids think it's a riot; in fact throughout the show, some little kid somewhere was always chuckling in a delighted, tickled-pink sort of way).  There are a few life lessons to be found in all the fun, though. Another sketch opens up into a droll little essay on vanity; and even after a passionate kiss, couples sometimes drift apart; and the sparkly little fish under the sea get eaten by bigger fish (bye-bye Nemo!).  Life's like that.

But frankly I think what's most striking about Mummenschanz at forty is their combination of faith and humility.  Even though they're often encased in orange slinkys or giant, rolling sponges, they never lose sight of what it means to be human - how that's an awkward, vulnerable, vexed, and bemusing position.  And thus how important it is to stay silly.  What's more, they still believe that economy can be as transporting on the stage as excess; all Mummenschanz needs is a strip of wire (and maybe a spotlight) to conjure a character. And you know what? They're right about that.  There are wonders here, built from nothing - schools of shining fish, and a giant, thrashing squid, and a ballerina looking for her head, and floating scraps of paper that fold into human faces, and much, much more.  Indeed, by the end of this evening, the small, quiet scale of the Mummenschanz magic begins to feel like something very large indeed - and something definitely to be treasured.

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