Mummenschanz, the noted nonverbal theater company, appeared at Kansas State University as a part of the McCain Performance Series on Tuesday. The performance was part of a North American tour of Mummenschanz’s 40th anniversary show.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is explain in words what a Mummenschanz performance is. Just attempting to describe one of the more than twenty sketches would require more words than is practical. What the performers are able to do with the characters they create seems to defy explanation, and occasionally physics, all without the intrusion of voices or music.
A Mummenschanz performance is a set of sketches. In each sketch, a character or characters are created using colorful props, bizarre costumes and malleable materials. Often the characters are far from human. Some even lack faces, or any indication of where the performer might be hidden.
The performers use bright colors and deep shadows to make characters, or sometimes specific parts of characters, stand out. Most of the stage is black. Occasionally an elevated platform, or a couple of tables provide obstacles or props for characters to overcome or use as a part of their performance. Sometimes the line between performers and characters is blurred when multiple performers are called on to animate parts of a single character, or even just the character’s face.
Even the drawing of the curtains was done in a distinctively Mummenschanz manner. Two performers wearing giant white-gloved hand costumes moved about the stage sliding the curtains back and dancing together appearing to belong to some hidden giant or operating magically independent of any direction.
Later sketches involved characters composed of giant tubes, flailing tentacles or shining streamers. There were several times when a particular movement defied the audience’s sense of where the performers were inside the characters. A character that seemed to require a person within to be oriented in a particular way would suddenly lurch in a direction or flip orientation in a manner completely beyond the ability of any human to move. These movements elicited gasps of amazement from the audience.
While many of the sketches were new to me, I did notice a few that were adapted from previous performances. One popular sketch involved two characters whose faces were made of elastic clay. One character was grotesque, and the other confident and attractive. As the confident character changed his face in equally attractive and confident ways, the grotesque’s attempts to mimic the changes just served to make his face more grotesque.
The skill required to manipulate the masks without any visual cues was remarkable in its own right. Add in the emotion within the transformations and the overall effect is unique.
The performers were able to emote from within faceless objects more effectively than many actors, with the benefit of facial expression and several takes to work with. Mummenschanz’s performers were able to turn amorphous blobs into sympathetic characters that earned laughs from the audience that rivaled any performances I’ve seen.
There were some audience participation pieces as well. A few audience members found themselves wrapped in masking tape or engulfed in giant, white-gloved, hands. After the intermission, several audience members moved closer to the stage in the hopes they could get involved as well.
Over the last forty years, Mummenschanz has performed all over the world. They are as much at home working on lofty stages, or alongside Muppets. Their characters, from bizarre, inhuman creations to grotesque caricatures of humanity, let the audience interpret them without voices or music to impose emotion or intent. Even without those cues, audiences seem to readily understand the message being delivered.
The skill of these four performers and the imaginative conception of the characters and their sketches combine into a real treat for the audience. Given another opportunity to see Mummenschanz I would not miss it.