The beloved Swiss mime troupe Mummenschanz has been tickling audiences for more than a generation. Some of the old-timers who bring their kids to watch the show today must have been children themselves, when the company played Broadway in the late 1970s.
Only one of the original mimes, Floriana Frassetto, continues to tour with the group, which appeared on Jan. 17 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown (and comes to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton on Jan. 27). Yet Mummenschanz remains unspoiled, offering an experience at once simple and profound.
The silliest routines involve pratfalls and slapstick, yet these performers also root around in our imaginations, asking us to recognize ourselves in the behavior of creatures as strange and fantastical as the abstract inventions of modern artists. The audience continues to supply the only musical accompaniment. An informal score of snorts, giggles and guffaws attests to viewers’ astonishment and delight.
With three new actors now concealed behind the troupe’s oversized masks, Mummenschanz can keep going as long as the toilet paper holds out.
Toilet paper, as the fan base knows, is among the humble, everyday materials that acquire a personality and a life in a Mummenschanz skit. In this classic episode, two mummers appear wearing google-eyed masks composed of toilet paper rolls — blue for the boy, and pink for the girl. When she wafts in, pink paper streams behind her as if she exuded a tantalizing air of springtime. Soon a romance develops, and depending on whether the paper unfurls from the characters’ “mouths” or “eyes,” it comes to represent long speeches or flowing tears of rejection. He rips off pieces to give himself a tie and pocket square; and naturally he writes her a letter. Though lacking in glamour, toilet paper proves amazingly versatile. It appears to change its substance as capriciously as the pink-paper girl reacts to her suitor’s proposals.
Other skits are simpler, like the one depicting a pillowy creature who struggles to climb atop a platform and stay there without falling off. Understanding this faceless hero’s predicament requires no more than a toddler’s grasp of physics, yet even adults may find themselves holding their breaths as the blob teeters perilously near the edge.
The same situation grows more hilarious in a later skit where the creature is the size of a giant boulder, and the precipice in question is the lip of the stage. Then those of us seated safely in the rear have a hearty chuckle watching our fellow audience members press tiny hands against the monster’s belly as they try to prevent it from rolling on top of them.
Viewers seated in the front row may also find themselves patted on the head by a giant, gloved hand that congratulates itself for pulling aside the stage curtain by signaling thumbs-up. Mummenschanz is “hands-on” in more ways than one. At another point, a lady whose face is composed of sticky tape asks front-row occupants to pitch in and help rearrange her features.
Several skits rely upon the characters’ ability to transform themselves. In one episode, a hinged board folds until we see two individuals facing each other. These individuals are no more than outlines sketched by the edges of the board, and we should see no more in their angular figures than the frames of two chairs. Yet because the figures move, they come alive, suggesting not merely chairs but seated characters.
The illusion also works because of empathy, as a quirk in our natures makes us eager to lend these puppets our humanity. With the actors hidden in darkness, we are also half-ready to believe in magic. When the board folds again, the two figures combine and miraculously take to the air as a single creature flapping its wings.
Not all of Mummenschanz’s characters have human foibles — like the disembodied mouth that hungers after a passing morsel, but later finds it bitter to the taste, wiping its huge tongue on the floor. In a series of skits describing the elements, the artists help us see different kinds of movement, including the ripple of air, the flow of water and the quavering of fire. Yet the best of these routines are mirrors held unflatteringly before us, like the one in which a jealous creature remolds his face, reacting to the fellow who has just stolen a flower. The thief sits smugly in possession of his prize, wearing a smile that would infuriate anyone.
Mummenschanz comes to the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27; visit mccarter.org.
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