Mummenschanz creates magic in silence

December 14, 2010

By: Naila Francis The Intelligencer

December 14, 2011

Even Bernie Schurch has a hard time describing a Mummenschanz performance, and this after almost 40 years of performing with the mask and mime company that he founded in Switzerland in 1972.

Yet what he does know for sure is that anyone who sees the show can’t help but be caught up in the fantastical world that he and his collaborators create, bringing bold forms and bright creatures to life with materials as common as wires, toilet paper, tubes, bags and boxes.

That the troupe’s offered decades of performances across the globe — a Mummenschanz tour stop is a feted occasion in almost any market — only affirms its enduring ability to captivate audiences with a charming ingenuity.

The towering slinky-like figure that loses its pants after unfurling from a sprawled position, two giant hands flapping in cheeky conversation with each other, blobs that threaten to seep into the audience — the theatrical tricks are created with the performers hidden behind quirky face masks or tucked into large sculptural forms whose movements they manipulate.

Sometimes, shapes float across or pop out of the darkness, stealthily maneuvered by rods and wires from the rear or side of the stage. Always, the movement is nonverbal, the only “music” the sounds of the material being animated between the shadows and light.

“It’s very difficult to explain because we cannot compare ourselves with anything that’s easy to understand,” says Schurch, who is returning to the U.S. for the first time since 2003 with Mummenschanz, which also features founding member Floriana Frassetto, performers Pietro Montandon and Raffaella Mattioli, and technical director Jan Maria Lukas.

“It’s not just mime or dance or magic. … We’re really a combination of most of those disciplines — but it’s called Mummenschanz and this is the one style.”

In one of several memorable scenes, two performers sit on stage, playing with their putty masks to suggest not only changing facial expressions but also the physical reconfiguration of their faces. In another, a face constructed with rolls of toilet paper sheds reams of that paper, as the tears quite literally stream from its eyes.

“We really wanted to get out there and suggest an alternative to classical white-face mime,” says Schurch. “The visual signals through any shape that moves onstage is done in its own choreography. It has its own rhythm and postures and gestures and attitudes, and in sequence, it makes sense to the audience.”

Schurch started what would evolve into Mummenschanz with the late Andres Bossard, also from Switzerland, after the two met at Jacques Lecoq’s theater school, specializing in movement and mime, in Paris in the late-1960s. The two decided to create their own show using mime and changeable abstract and geometric masks in 1969. When Frassetto, an Italian-American, caught the duo’s show in Rome two years later, she joined them to create Mummenschanz, which can be loosely translated as “masquerade.” They began presenting their first shows together in 1972 and debuted in the U.S. the following year, becoming an international sensation after an acclaimed three-year run on Broadway in 1977 at the Bijou Theatre.

After Bossard’s death in 1992, Schurch and Frassetto performed for a while as a duo and then briefly again as a trio with American actor John Charles Murphy before growing, in 2000, to a company of five.

But the initial aesthetic impulse has always remained the same.

“For me, the movement of the human body was most eloquent and precise enough to express those things that we wanted to express onstage, which basically are emotions,” says Schurch, now 66. “We wanted the audiences throughout the world to understand that emotions are the most common language that we share together. We are using body language, for which we have been trained — in mime, acrobatics, martial arts, all these disciplines — in order to animate our characters.”

The goal is to engage audiences in a dialogue and to leave them with an experience of transformational theater. But what those sitting in front of the stage feel or think, whether they’re moved to laughter or tears or something in between, is really up to them.

“Anybody, from 5 to 105 years, and anywhere between black and white, anyone from all backgrounds and cultures can come to our show and enjoy themselves by sheer fantasy, by the excitement of having so much freedom and space to name and bring up their own associations and make up the stories around the characters that they see onstage,” says Schurch.

“People are almost drowning under so many directives in life that this freedom opens for them a moment of joyfulness, a moment of happiness. … It gives the audience also a sense of being respected fully for who they are. There is no intellectual level requested to understand our show. Everybody can play with us in this dialogue and feel good about it and let loose this childlike clown that we’ve all buried so deeply inside.”

For its three-month North American tour, which stops Thursday, for a four-day stint at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Mummenschanz is presenting a career retrospective, revisiting favorite skits from each decade. Many of the more contemporary ones will be new to longtime fans, given the troupe’s seven-year U.S. absence.

Yet in an age where high-tech shows with splashy special effects and hyper sonics are more the norm, Schurch has found audiences happy to embrace the silent magic that he and his cohorts create.

“The surprising reaction is that they’re so grateful to have so much freedom and space for themselves and to not be shut down with so much explosives and technical special effects, which we have always negated,” he says.

“We always wanted to go with the pure essence of human communication. We want the audience not to consume but to participate, to be active and spontaneously enter the game.”