I’ve had a number of learning experiences taking my daughter, now ten, to the theater, but seeing Mummenschanz proved particularly revealing. The Switzerland-based company, which formed in Paris in 1972, drew on mime and other traditions to develop its own brand of wordless, largely silent storytelling incorporating masks, movement and the imaginative use of common objects and materials. I was roughly my child’s age when the troupe took Broadway by storm in the late ‘70s; while my parents took me to revivals of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and West Side Story instead—about which I’ve no complaints—I vaguely remember TV commercials with an echoing voice and clips of masked performers prancing about, as if on some artful acid trip I wouldn’t have recognized then. A recent Google search reminded me that one skit involved rolls of toilet paper.
The new show that Mummenschanz’s “musicians of silence” have brought to New York, titled you & me, includes a number of classic elements, revived here by founding member Floriana Frassetto, who co-created the program in collaboration with Tina Kronis and Richard Alger. Frassetto performs with four Swiss artists in their 20s and 30s—Sara Francesca Hermann, Oliver Pfulg, Christa Lee-Anne Barrett and Kevin Blaser, guided by technical director Eric Sauge—all of their faces concealed until the curtain call. By that point we have watched them bend and twist inside brightly colored, human-sized slinkies and spotted their legs dangling below enormous facsimiles of hands, to cite two company staples. The vignettes are new, though, some showing off the players’ acrobatic capacities and others hiding their forms entirely as they manipulate props and fabric. An object resembling a giant pillow scrunches to suggest various human emotions; another that’s shaped like an egg seems to offer a Mona Lisa smile.
For all the clever choreography involved here, there is a sense of the contemplation and reflection we associate with stillness, and not just because of the relative lack of sound, which is limited to buzzing evoking an insect and strains of violins that also serve as masks. My daughter was stumped by this at first; looking around, I noticed that most of the children attending the preview matinee were younger, and shared none of her apparent confusion. Several laughed or even spoke out in their giddy enthusiasm, providing a sort of unintentional soundtrack. “Please don’t joke, just fall off the stage, fall off,” one shouted to an object as it floated towards the audience.
That the pre-school and early-elementary set would respond so strongly to non-verbal entertainment may seem a given, but many of their parents, not to mention the majority of adults who came without children, seemed just as charmed, even if they were more discreet about it. It occurred to me that my child belongs to a generation—a couple of generations, really, extending at least to younger millennials—so accustomed to constant stimulation from a variety of sources, technology prominent among them, that the notion of focusing on a series of quiet interactions might seem downright nerve-racking.
you and me appears to address this, actually, in a segment towards the end, where the players wear hoodies and carry frame-like structures that could be smartphones or tablets. Like much of the show, the scene incorporates humor, as the hidden cast members dryly observe and react to each other and eventually break into individual dances. But as their movement becomes busier and more frenetic, distinguishing and in a sense disconnecting each player in focus, it also suggests how modern means of promoting community can equally encourage narcissism and alienation.
That’s not to say there’s anything subversive or even really provocative about Mummenschanz’s latest outing; even the middle-aged and older fans who remember its first incarnation may find some of the pleasures in this production quaint ones. But when my daughter and I left the theater and headed home, I’d like to think we felt just a bit more connected to the people around us, whatever their destinations.
“you and me” opened July 10, 2018 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater and runs through July 22. Tickets and information: mummenschanz.com