If you’re like many people in my social media feeds, you periodically retreat from the sturm und drang of world affairs in these troubled times to seek solace in the refuge of GIFs and videos capturing cute baby animals and the like. Right on schedule, a certain beloved mime troupe has returned to New York City from their native Switzerland to remind us that the theatre can serve a similar purpose. Mummenschanz are performing their current show, “you & me,” at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater through July 22.
Since 1972, Mummenschanz has been delighting audiences from 1 to 100 with their revues of silent vignettes mixing elements of mime, mask, puppetry, and dance. Their name, the German word for “mummery,” is essentially a statement by the company that they are latter-day “mummers” — traveling troupes of multi-skilled performers who crisscrossed Europe during the Medieval era. But this quality of traditionalism is balanced with a modern visual sensibility; the company has always favored props, puppets, and costumes of bold bright colored synthetics and plastics, often molded in abstract shapes that anchor them in the space age.
The company’s official nickname is “The Musicians of Silence.” The original troupe consisted of three performers who’d studied under famed mime instructor Jacques Lecoq: Bernie Schürch and Andres Bossard, both Swiss, and Floriana Frassetto, from Italy. Their success was rapid. Jim Henson was a fan, and featured the company both on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” From 1977 through 1980 they enjoyed a successful run on Broadway.
Since their founding 46 years ago, there have of course been some changes. Bossard died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Schürch retired in 2012. Since 2016, Frassetto has led the company in its present incarnation. Their current production has toured throughout Europe and North America for over two years; this is its New York City premiere.
The show is a mix of some of Mummenschanz’s popular numbers alongside new things they are trying out. Fans of their tried-and-true routines with giant hands and an enormous balloon will not be disappointed. But they will also get to enjoy new experimentation with sound, in the form of musical instruments like the cymbal, viola, and violin. The company also experiments with a live video feed.
But the bulk of “you & me” is populated with an imaginative realm of beings that suggest everything from clams to tubeworms to frogs to jellyfish to seahorses. Sometimes, personality is given to pure abstraction, simple movement by geometric shapes in space. The vignettes themselves often suggest traditional mimoplays about human relationships, but often seem to be just as much about the entire natural world, from microscopic single-celled organisms to the cosmic shifting of celestial bodies. Audiences are often vocally amused by the mischievous happenings onstage, yet the real pleasures of the show are aesthetic and contemplative just as much as they are comic.
And there’s a universality to it: “you & me” would not be inaccessible to the “Teletubbies” crowd, but there’s a subtly profundity that ought to seduce any adult. Simple themes emerge — chaos vs. order, attraction vs. repulsion — that mimic the ebb and flow of the universe. An egg is always more than an egg for those who can see beyond breakfast.
It’s impressive to learn that at age 67, Frassetto is one of those tumbling, spinning, physical performers inside those crazy costumes.
“When Bernie retired after 40 years with the company I was confronted with the question ‘What do I do?’ ” Frassetto said. “Do I close the door and burn the costumes? Or do I continue? I’m an artisan. I love to construct things. I love to travel. And my two friends and collaborators, choreographer Tina Kronis, and playwright Richard Alger helped me out, and we worked together. And our four new cast members have brought lots of energy and enthusiasm and their own dreams. It’s too early to say where we go next. But we enjoy being together. We enjoy laughing. And that’s important.”
At the moment, it seems like the most important thing in the world.
BY TRAV S.D.