Mummenschanz, November 25

20 Dec

Like Christmas, Thanksgiving gives presenters the opportunity to book a special genre of entertainment so theaters have something families can attend, relax and enjoy.

In my opinion, the prevalence of such theatrical diversions are in short supply.  The offering needs to be mild, funny, festooned with whimsy or acrobatics, neatly paced, and, if possible, engage the audience directly.  If the combination comes close, and manages to be civilized, oh so much the better.

Mummenschanz meets all of the above and more; extraordinary, it is one of the gems late twentieth, now twenty-first century theater experiences, celebrating 40 years of performance.  Cal Performance was astute in presenting the ensemble in Thanksgiving matinees November 23-24-25.  I attended the final matinee, only my second exposure to such magic, coming away more enthralled and satisfied that my first foray to its magical terrain.   All accomplished with four individuals, two men, two women, Floriana Frassetto remains the only one of the original quartet captivating Broadway audiences, 1977-1980.  Mummenschanz is today’s tribute to the commedia dell ‘arte tradition; hardly surprising, given the names of the artists.

I have asked myself, “What is it about Mummenschanz’ brief sketches which are so absorbing, compelling fascinating – really.the whole nine yards?”  Of course, the quartet reaches out to ensnare the child in each adult and the responses of anyone from two to twenty.

They accomplish this in several ways, which while sure fire, also demand first-rate timing plus a fine tuning of sensibilities. Mild danger is one of them such as the big orange-pink balloon careening out of center stage, rolling down to the apron to tilt precariously, galvanizing will audience hands to assist its balance before it returns to center stage and exits behind the curtains drawn to shorten the proscenium width.  A crinkled, yellow tube worms its way across the limited opening, turns to the audience, its tubular top a dark, blank circle.  Said tube shuffles or undulates its way around the space; a ball is tossed to it from behind the curtain.  It appears that the ball is sucked to the end of the tube; a play with it ensues.  Sometimes the balance is off center, and one wonders how ball and tube will remain together.

One brief sequence recalls Mummenschanz’ iconic image.  It is the insect, someone crossing the stage horizontally, feet in releve, hands completing the suggestion of one of those critters one swats on the ceiling or flicks off the leaf of a favorite plant.

Two narratives are beguiling and riveting.  A man emerges, then a woman; they encounter each other.  He begins to woo her with the aid of a toilet paper roll which he unrolls like a ream of poetry.  The viewers begin to chuckle.  Dressed in near union suite like tights, the encounter proceeds.  As the dialogue continues, another toilet paper roll, light powder blue, unrolls from the woman’s face.  She rejects him with a rolling explanation.  He responds, crying with another roll.  She thinks better of her comments with another cascade, and they waft off together trailing remaining rolls to the continued waves of audience laughter, wondering how large the supply of rolls is required for each tour.

The second sketch was with two men with the pretentious posture of aging men in an exclusive men’s club not known for its progressive membership.  In their conversation bluster and antagonism is evident and the measure of their duking it out comes with the aid of  dirty white play dough.  The mask of each male is manipulated  piece by piece as if delivering arguments in a debate with pauses for reaction and allowing the audience to see how the play dough is altered in each “delivery.”  The finale makes one of the two look like a mask inspired by the William Steig cartoon, “These ailments are purely psychic.”

Pietro Montandon, Raffaeli Mattioli and Philippe Egli complete the quartet.  Cal Performance should add Mummenschanz to its list of regular events: Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey Dance Company.  We should be so blessed!

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