Mummenschanz is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a retrospective show at the Citi Shubert Theatre through December 9, 2012 as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. The Swiss performance company translates its name as "the chance of masking yourself." Mummenschanz uses neither music nor words, and more or less eliminates traditional depictions of race, age and gender from their performance vocabulary.
Masters of objects, materials, and props, they stitch together many vignettes ranging from perhaps 30 seconds to several minutes. Like the four performers themselves, the show is constantly morphing from one fantastical vision of light and movement to the next. A giant hand struggles to open the curtain at the start of the show and when it succeeds, it gives a thumbs up that extracts instant giggles from the crowd. A luminous green egg splits in half like a big mouth and thrusts out a bright red tongue that does things that cause the audience to cringe. Very early on it is clear that Mummenschanz is playing to the many kids in the crowd - as well as to "the child within," according to founding member and artistic director Floriana Frassetto.
Their iconic pieces employ remarkable slinky tubes that disguise the performer within, use pink and blue toilet paper in a sweet seduction scene between two machines, and mold clay faces on-stage. In fact, real-time sculpting is a recurring theme on Mummenschanz’s stage, whether it is neon-like tubing making a smiling mouth scream, or the clay visage that tells an animated story about how the beautiful and the ugly are just a matter of degree.
Air and lighting play big roles in Mummenschanz’s magic as well - from heads that inflate inside-out when the figure moves backward to a massive blob-like balloon that beats like a giant’s heart before it shrivels to a handful. Perhaps the most erotic of the not infrequent love stories is the plug (of the European variety) and the socket. The performers are wearing these as heads, where you would expect to see their faces, as is often the case with Mummenschanz. After a bit of teasing, the plug plunges into the socket, lighting up the theater brightly. They run off-stage, and the lights continue to go on and off with a thrusting rhythm.
The biggest surprise came at the end of this non-stop encyclopedia of entertaining blurbs when the four performers removed their head props. They are two women and two men - none of them young. Floriana Frassetto, 62, conducted a post-performance Q&A in which she talked with charm and wit about the beginnings of the company in the 60s, when she joined up with two Swiss clowns Andres Bossard and Bernie Schürch. "We were flower-power kids. We started with what we had, which was nothing. A lot was recycled garbage... We wanted to change the world in a playful way, an interactive way." Bossard died of AIDS in 1992 at age 47 and Schürch recently retired from the company. Frassetto has played in every performance these 40 years.
While Mummenschanz’s repertoire is light-hearted and enchanting, one is left wondering about the ways in which humans infuse objects with human-like qualities and wishing that we had their shape-shifting powers and their feel-good magic.
Mummenschanz continues through December 9, 2012 at the Shubert Theatre. For more information, visit the Celebrity Series of Boston website.