Ordinary Things Become Extraordinary in Mummenschanz's Re:Play
Strange creatures with familiar faces await audiences at the New Victory Theater.
One of my first exposures to the theater troupe Mummenschanz was in a 1970s television commercial. I was probably about 10 years old, and I vividly remember the image of a person dressed in black whose eyes, ears, and mouth were made of rolls of toilet paper. That and the other odd creatures and mutating faces mesmerized me, and rewatching that commercial now, I think those curious images lit up a then-untapped corner of my imagination, just as it must have for audiences at Broadway's Bijou Theatre, where, beginning in 1977, Mummenschanz ran for three years.
It wouldn't surprise me if the youngsters (and adults) who attend Mummenschanz's latest work, Re:Play, now running at the New Victory Theater, have similar experiences. The troupe was founded in Paris in 1972 by Bernie Schürch, the late Andres Bossard, and the company's current artistic director, Floriana Frassetto, who also performs here. I didn't see the toilet-paper-faced person in this latest incarnation, but the new acts were just as captivating.
The word Mummenschanz in German means something along the lines of "pantomime performance," so there's no spoken language and very little sound in this hourlong show, unless you count the laughter from the children in the audience. The giggles begin when two enormous hands with legs appear (two actors wear huge glovelike costumes, one of which interacts with the kids in the front rows). A "wow" fills the theater when the hands come together onstage.
Other acts generate even more screams and hoots. There's a funny caterpillar who tries to eat a leaf and then turns into a shimmering butterfly. The cast, which also includes Christa Barrett, Kevin Blaser, Sara Francesca Hermann, and Oliver Pfulg, create other animal-themed illusions with fish puppets that appear to float across the stage. Dressed in black and operating the puppets from the shadows, the performers convincingly fool our eyes into seeing an underwater scene.
No act matches the hilarity of two large-mouthed accordion-shaped creatures who toss a big red ball into the audience for everyone to take turns punching into the air. Amid the fun, though, there's also room for social commentary. A male figure with a cymbal for a face begins to make music with a female figure who has a musical triangle for hers. When the cymbal-faced man gets a little too familiar with his drum brushes, the triangle-faced woman quickly gives him a reproachful gong.
Each of Re:Play's short scenes offers its own unique delight. You won't see a human face the entire time (until the curtain call), yet by the end you'll feel as though you've met dozens of characters whose faces somehow seem human. That's part of the magic of Mummenschanz. By applying our imaginations to everyday objects around us, we can create fantastical versions of our ordinary selves. That's something that kids love to do — and something you might want to be reminded that you can still do too.