I luckily saw a fair amount of theater right before everything shut down. As usual, posting my reflections late, but it’s nice to have those memories of live performances to sustain me through the current drought.
Like many Gen X/Millennials, my first experience of Mummenschanz was through the delightfully weird Sesame Street of the 1980s, back before it was so polished and clean. Mummenschanz’s odd sensibility fit perfectly with the homemade feel of that era of sunny days.
Since then, I’ve seen many of their performances on video, usually shared with an incredulous, “How do you think they pulled that off?”
So when I heard they were touring to the Forbes Center at James Madison University, I knew I had to see it (all credit for my actually seeing it goes to my stepdad, who finagled the tickets after they sold out while I was too distracted with the rest of my life to even think about it).
This was one of the oddest, and most joyful, pieces of theater I have ever seen. My kids loved it, once they got into it. At the beginning, a camera projected an image of a pair of hands on a table, manipulating small toys (this all was happening live, but the camera/projector situation made it possible for the audience to see). The toys were foam letters, little tubes, blocks. At that moment, their purpose was unclear, but later in the show, giant versions of all of these items, including the gloved hands, appeared on the stage and repeated the toys’ movements.
Describing exactly what worked about you & me is challenging. The confluence of many things—commitment, whimsy, collaboration, physical skill—built this strange and engaging experience. The performers’ bodies were always hidden by full-body puppets or by darkness. In some of the puppets, discerning how a human body fit into it was sometimes challenging or impossible. We’d have a good guess about where the performer’s feet were…and then they’d turn over and be exactly as stable in their movement.
They played with the human capacity for seeing faces in the slightest suggestion a great deal. One set of three essentially identical, bag-like puppets all had faces created in a different way by the performers’ hands and arms from within. I got used to thinking, “Oh, this is a creature whose face is on this part of the body, and looks like this,” and then another one would come in, with a completely different face, created from the same material.
Another hallmark of all the pieces was the way that scale interacted and told the story. Many of the scenes built on a big/bigger/biggest mode, both of the puppets’ size and of the physical demands placed on the performer. Some of the biggest puppets (and stunts) were breathtaking in how they reached up and out in the proscenium.
I was struck by how silent the experience was. Mummenschanz doesn’t use any words or musical underscoring. There’s no audio to provoke emotions or help tell the story. I could hear the rest of the audience with unusual clarity; an intimate experience in the darkness.
My favorite puppets were the ones made from extremely simple materials. A big silk became a jellyfish. A ball had intention, objectives, obstacles. A tube played with its friend.
It inspired me to stretch the limits of what my available materials can do, and to think about telling stories in modes I’ve never explored.