The wonderful world of Mummenschanz

Chitra Kalyani
7 Min Read

It is always a source of wonder what can transpire in the empty stage that we call a theater, a space with an infinite scope of creativity made available when rules are disregarded.

Last Thursday, the Cairo Opera House was host to the magic spun of a truly outstanding mime performance by the quartet, Mummenschanz, which roughly translates into “masquerade.

From the start of evening, the Mummenschanz performers had the audience, quite literally, in the palm of their hands. The curtains were parted by a giant white hand, which then gave a “thumbs-up sign. One performer’s hand came walking through the audience, shaking their hands and patting their heads along the way. Once onstage together, the two hands – held up by artists dressed in black – counted the audience, then circled before twiddling their thumbs.

Presented by the Swiss Arts Council in honor of the Cairo Opera House’s 20th anniversary, the mime performance entitled “3×11 also marks a 33-year retrospective of Mummenschanz.

For audience member Cornelia El-Sayed, Mummenschanz was a nostalgic experience. “I’m 40 years old and I remember seeing it 20 years ago, she said.

El-Sayed, who had come to watch the show with her husband and children, found the silent art of mime “a soft way to be a clown. Seated at the front, El-Sayed said she was most impressed by a “rock that threatened to fall on them.

Objects in theater also swiftly change forms. A large lump of rock arriving on stage soon turned into a thumping heart, then a face that seemed to both giggle and grumble. The face was transformed back into a rock, threatening to fall over onto the onlookers. Almost immediately, the object retracted, folding and shrinking back into a small lump of material. The audience clapped as if in response to a magician turning a handkerchief into flying doves.

The language of the masquerade is founded on the elimination of objects, emphasizing one isolated feature, such as a hand. The outcome of stressing such a shape is a heightened experience of the dance of the fingers – in counting, in signing, or even a vicarious sense of touch. As a result, the audience becomes instantly conscious of the meaning conveyed by the simple act of clapping hands.

In an outlined, defined black box, isolating objects render such experience sharper in these instances when they are colorfully and joyfully animated.

Performances consisted of little skits of humorous interactions in nature and between people.

A green mouth that one audience member identified as an “oyster and another called a “frog licked its lips seeing potential food. After some effort, the mouth finally managed to pull its food into the mouth, but soon, dissatisfied, spat the object out. The sight of a red tongue wiping itself on the floor to rid itself of the aftertaste was received with much laughter from children and adults alike.

Taking on a form entails representing a quality. An insect was thus characterized by a creature on pointed toes and hands, wiping its hands in swift movements and flicking them back as a fly would.

Breaking the boundary between theater and the audience was as easy as having a yellow tube bounce a red balloon and send it flying to the audience.

Tens of adults stood up with outstretched hands, vying to help the balloon on its journey back onstage. Meanwhile, the yellow tube coiled around itself and gazed silently at the audience with an open end.

The interaction amongst figures onstage was equally interesting and full of references. A couple, which had notepads for eyes and a mouth, showed different reactions towards each other by tearing off their facial expressions.

Eventually, one partner threw down the notepad from her mouth, expressing reluctance to talk anymore.

Curiosity was the common factor shared by all the skits on stage. The fanciful creatures aroused a curiosity towards objects and their qualities – such as the flicking of a fly, or the thumping of an elephant. Meanwhile, interactions between characters revealed a curiosity amongst objects investigating, kissing or fighting with each other.

In the “soft world of mime, objects are simplified into essentials – a man and a woman quite simply represented in the form of a plug and a socket, joined together in one kiss. The caricatures reveal personality aspects, forcing the adult in one to acknowledge its message with laughter, and the child to delight with wonder.

Not all interactions were successful; such as the two polythene faces that never faced each other, and hence were unable to kiss, so that one eventually chased the other out.

In another one, two floating bodies kissed (as passionately as polythene permits) before the head of one of them blew off its shoulders, sending it flying away. The light-headed giddiness of the dance of attraction was well-conveyed, and in both cases, ended in laughter.

Mummenschanz was founded over three decades ago by Swiss artists Bernie Schürch and Andres Bossard with Italian-American Floriana Frassetto. In the current tour, founders Bossard and Frassetto were accompanied by artists Raffaella Mattioli and Pietro Montandon.

“3×11 arrived in Cairo following a successful Swiss tour of 170 sold-out performances to over 145,000 spectators. Mummenschanz will continue its tour into Israel in May, followed by South Africa in the summer and South America in the fall.

Catch Mummenschanz at Alexandria Opera House tonight, 8 pm. Tel: (03) 486 5106, (03) 480 0092, (03) 480 0138.

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