The comic tropes of Mummenschanz are by now so universal that even a 4-year-old child can understand them — and laugh out loud at the surreal, silent antics of the masked, black-suited and barefoot players.
The real challenge nowadays for the internationally renowned Swiss theater troupe, who are headed to Staller Center in Stony Brook on Sunday, Jan. 31, is spreading that sense of childlike glee to more mature audience members, says Mummenschanz co-founder Floriana Frassetto.
Even in staid places where the troupe has performed, such as Tehran, Iran, “It’s always fun to see someone dressed in a suit and tie, and looking really elegant,” says Frassetto, 65, co-founder and the only original member of the trio. “And then the child comes out in them.”
Greatest (silent) hits
Although Mummenschanz has added to its repertoire over the decades, classic routines survive from the 1970s, when the trio burst on the American scene with a three-year run on Broadway and a memorable appearance on “The Muppet Show.”
“We’re going to be presenting the best of 45 years,” Frassetto says of the Staller show. Laugh along as the actors rearrange each other’s wet clay mask faces for comic effect, or express emotions via cascading rolls of red and blue toilet paper.
However, to keep up with changing times and make sure the gags can be seen in larger auditoriums, Mummenschanz has also morphed into a show with bigger masks and props. “We started doing inflatable costumes, such as two big sumo wrestlers fighting, and a big slow-motion octopus,” Frassetto says.
An American connection
Although Mummenschanz is known as a Swiss troupe, Frassetto is American born, the daughter of Italian immigrants to Norfolk, Virginia. She studied acting, mime, acrobatics and dance at European schools and worked in Rome in pantomime and theater productions before meeting Swiss clowns Andres Bossard and Bernie Schürch, with whom she founded Mummenschanz in 1972 in Paris. The trio improvised routines — and masks — with unusual materials such as recycled vacuum cleaner hoses. They invented nonverbal performance techniques based on a variety of influences: Italian commedia dell’arte, the mobiles of Alexander Calder, silent screen comics such as Buster Keaton, and Mickey Mouse cartoons, Frassetto says.
“No one really got into a plastic bag before and shaped it into a heart, to my knowledge,” Frassetto says of their innovative earliest routines. Bossard died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, and Schürch continues to contribute as an inventor and developer but is no longer appearing with Mummenschanz, while Frassetto says she performs in every show. New cast members from Switzerland, including Philipp Egli of Zurich, have re-established the Alpine connection.
Frassetto says the Stony Brook show will be “an evening of interactive creativity,” with opportunities for audience members to play along with performers.
“There is one particular moment when a big hand goes in the audience and kind of tickles and tackles with some of the first-row people, and then me coming down with the intermission cube and asking people to draw faces,” Frassetto says. “Then there is Philipp, who throws a ball into the audience.” Adults then join in the game of catch, she says.
Even though the show is filled with such classic bits, the performers always try to make the show feel fresh.
“Every evening is like the first evening,” Frassetto says. “I am looking forward to that wonderful first evening we’re going to share together.”