Photo by Isaac Sligh
On the evening of Wednesday, February 11, Guerry Auditorium filled with a mix of faculty, staff, local residents, and students not attending Laci Green’s sex-education talk. Mummenschanz, the Swiss mask-theatre troupe, had set up shop in Sewanee, promising a night of playful (and completely silent) commentary on the human Photo by Isaac Slighcondition. The performers, Floriana Frassetto, Giovanni Colombo, Raffaella Mattioli, and Pietro Montandon, would spend the show encased in costumes that ranged from vaguely humanoid Slinkies to nearly inert blobs, in pursuit of the humorous and the essentially human. As the glossy programs advertised, “In the wordless universe of Mummenschanz, the ordinary becomes extraordinary when common materials, everyday objects (like toilet paper) and colorful abstract shapes and forms… spring to life.”
A group of juvenile art critics in the second row contributed to the anticipatory atmosphere with lively commentary on the YouTube clips they had perused before coming to the show, but fell silent as the house lights dimmed and the first puppet-creature drew the curtain aside. Instead of providing a strict list of acts, Mummenschanz gave a list of tiny drawings in the program, each representing a different piece. Especially memorable performances included a blob that tried, with pathetic persistence, to clamber atop a platform, two humanoid balloon-like creatures that fought in slow motion, and a sheet of fabric made to behave like paper blowing in the wind. Audience participation also featured heavily in the show; a yellow cylinder tossed a ball back and forth with the audience, a woman with a box for a head invited those sitting near the front to tape facial features onto her blank countenance, and an enormous and amorphous creature rolled partially offstage, onto Dr. and Rev. Gatta’s heads. As eight-year-old Emory Preslar summarized, “I really liked the tongue-Pac-man… After the problem with the lights at the beginning, it went very well.”
Mummenschanz has been inciting such pleasure, in children and adults alike, since 1972. The founding performers, including Ms. Frassetto, originated the group’s distinctive blend of silence and surrealism in Paris, before embarking on a world tour to broaden and develop their ideas. They first achieved international recognition through their 1977 Broadway production, and have continued to tour ever since. Though Andres Bossard, another founder, died in 1992, the group has continued to experiment and evolve, and has grown to include many other performers. As their website explains, “The years that followed Andres’ early departure saw the emergence of more complete programs, the development of mask and playing techniques, and the broadening of the repertoire.” Simultaneously ridiculous and profound, their modeling of inhuman shapes has shown countless watchers a path to the pain and wonder of the essentially human.