Mummenschanz co-founder Floriana Frassetto is surprisingly chatty for a mime. "Well I suppose I shut up the whole day, then I have to let it out," she says with a laugh.
Her experimental Swiss mime troupe took Broadway by storm in the 1970s. Now the masked performers are bringing their hard-to-describe characters back to the U.S. for a five-month national tour celebrating the troupe's 40th anniversary.
Mummenschanz isn't your white-faced, Marcel Marceau mime. The bizarre masks, costumes and choreography cloak the human form to tell stories that convey messages about our lives.
In one act, two performers dressed in black, wear velvet masks with large notepads attached — two for eyes and one for a mouth. They pull out fat, magic markers and doodle eye and mouth expressions on individual sheets of the pads. Wide eyes and smiles turn into pouts and grimaces as the notepads engage in a silent conversation as the pages are ripped off.
It's a competition to see who gets the last word, explains Frassetto, who is one of the three performers who dreamed up Mummenschanz's "Notepad People" in the early 1970s.
"Finally, they just don't find the correct communication level and so they start tearing one another's faces off," she says. "Occasionally it happens in life."
Another Mummenschanz creation is a creature Frassetto calls "The Blob." On stage it struggles to get its amorphous figure up onto a platform. "It's trying to get on a higher level and it doesn't find the balance," Frassetto explains. "And as soon as it finds the balance, it gets sucked down and it falls of. So everyone identifies with it."
A Wordless Revolution
Mummenschanz began in Switzerland as three artists and hippies with counter-cultural ideas. Frassetto, Andres Bossard and Bernie Schurch also had an eye for trash. They recycled ventilation tubes into giant Slinkys they could crawl inside and animate on stage. They used toilet paper rolls, suitcases, masking tape, wads of clay — and they took their junk around the world.
When they landed on Broadway in 1977, Frassetto says, they thought they'd barely be there long enough to send postcards back home to Europe. But "then we started selling out for the next X months and we stayed on three years," she says.
At the time, the show was revolutionary. Kermit the Frog, who was ahead of the curve, hosted Mummenschanz on the Muppet Show in 1976. They performed an act that depicted a human-sized caterpillar's plump, plush body as shimmies up a ramp. When it curls up into a ball — like a waterbug does — it looks strong and graceful, offering a hint of the athletic performer inside. That caterpillar was one of the creations that made Mummenschanz an international success.
In 1992, Bossard died of AIDS, but the troupe carried on. Schurch, the third performer and Frassetto's ex-husband, moved off the stage and into the director's chair for this tour, so Frassetto is working with three new members, including Philip Egli, a choreographer and dancer from Switzerland.
The 46-year-old Egli grew up on Mummenschantz. "In Switzerland it's a brand like the Swiss chocolate almost," he says. One of his very first theater experiences was seeing Mummenschantz with his mother and siblings in Zurich.
Mummenschanz makes us see objects and ourselves differently, Egli says. Nothing is as it appears. Recently, the troupe took a lunchtime audience by surprise with a pop-up performance in Boston's Quincy Market. A huge, gloved hand — as big as a person — sits on top of legs in black tights. It sneaks up and grabs a passerby. The effect is surreal — and funny.
Brian Woods, 42, was in Boston for business and had no idea what he was watching. "This is a pretty cool act," Woods says. "Innovative! I've seen things like Blue Man Group, but I've not seen anybody do anything quite like this, so this is pretty cool." (The magazine Variety actually described Blue Man Group as "Mummenschanz on acid.")
Egli says the genius of the troupe lies in its simplicity. "The most beautiful pieces — also in dance — they start from a black space," he says. "They don't start with the set, the costumes and the big lighting and the great story. They start with some people on stage."