NEW YORK—One thing you can say about the Switzerland-based theater company Mummenschanz is that they certainly know how to please a crowd. They give themselves and the audience a hand, literally at times, during their 40th anniversary tour now at the NYU Skirball Center in Manhattan.
Described in the press materials as “visual theatre,” the show features approximately two dozen shapes, objects, and three-dimensional figures—all embodied by four very talented performers (Floriana Frassetto, Philipp Egli, Raffaella Mattioli, and Pietro Montandon).
Each figure tells a story and occasionally offers a gentle moral lesson. All are just plain fun. The initial sequence has a gigantic hand parting the stage curtain and ending with the thumbs up sign.
Other segments feature a boulder trying to roll itself onto a box; a sort of Pac-Man object with a rather large tongue looking for something to eat; a being that has a suitcase for a head; a gigantic octopus-like thing with long black arms; a combative garbage bag; and some weird-looking creatures that are part insect, part human, and part something else.
What makes these different creations so endearing is the ability of the performers to embody them with relatable emotions, such as hunger, determination, or a need for companionship.
This last desire is wonderfully explored with what can best be described as a combination giant slinky and inchworm with a rather large balloon who just wants someone to play with or a pair of stick figures who tell their story via ever-changing pieces of paper over their eyes and mouth, the designs on the paper reflecting humor, shyness, and other feelings.
It’s a testament to the performers’ skill that they are able to make seemingly everyday objects, like a sheet of paper or gigantic piece of plastic, have understandable expressions that appear and disappear at the drop of a hat.
Mixed in throughout are various moral warnings, such as the need to get along and understand one another, and how the loss of that understanding often leads to conflict and unhappiness.
Some of the creations fail to effectively communicate with each other, and others are only able to do so by attacking one another, the latter technique used to quite comedic effect.
There’s even a running theme of survival of the fittest, as seen via different sizes of fish and tiny creatures versus bigger creatures.
Another important part of the show is how it’s able to continually hold the interest of the audience, one which consists of mostly young children and their parents.
The aforementioned balloon, which ends up bouncing over the heads of those in attendance, is one way it does so; another is the various comic confrontations between the characters: characters such as male and female behemoths, creatures with faces of clay that contort to form a wide range of expressions, and a twosome that bend and twist the other’s face to show their anger and displeasure.
There are also several instances of audience participation. Some of the figures move about the seating area, including a masked female who lets audience members create her facial expressions via masking tape.
The various segments are different enough as to never seem repetitive and never long enough to allow the audience’s attention to start to wander.
Unlike the last time “Mummenschanz” was in New York (December 2010), when it came with a warning that the performance may not be appropriate for extremely young children, such is not the case here. This production is completely kid and family friendly.
The only thing even approaching the risqué was a sequence between an electrical plug and socket and the resulting sparks they set off—as shown by flickering lights—when they got together.
Whimsical from start to finish, “Mummenschanz” is a wonderful treat for the entire family. The company’s creations are able to reawaken the little child in everyone, even the most cynical and life-hardened.
New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or visit mummenschanznyc.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Closes: Jan. 6
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.