Richardson — How can something so simple permeate so many levels of our humanity? How can performers comment on the human condition without uttering a word, showing their faces, or moving to any music?
Apparently, that’s just another day at the office for Mummenschanz, the Swiss physical theater troupe that’s been around for 47 years. Their recent tour of you & me at the Eisemann Center in Richardson reveals methods we’ve seen before. It’s a little bit Pilobolus, some MOMIX, a dash of Alwin Nikolais. Yet it’s none of those at all.
Using pieces of fabric, masks, and various props, the five performers take audience members on a journey with no linear narrative, but in the end, we all arrive at a destination. Once there, we discover our common joy through laughter, symbols, and simple yet striking images.
A black curtain forms the backdrop for a series of vignettes focusing on a few objects. Labeling themselves as “Musicians of Silence,” their show contains no recorded music or melodies played on stage. The occasional buzz of a fly is the only recorded sound, and a while musical instruments appear briefly on stage, relatively little noise actually comes from them. Audience reaction is the sound score, yet the artists engage patrons so deeply that many moments elicit pin-drop silence.
On the surface, it’s incredibly humorous, and anyone who does not leave without giggling or bursting into laughter at some point was likely asleep. But under the whimsy and wit, it points to the unique ways in which we perceive and make sense of our world in terms of patterns and recognizable objects, mostly our own physical form. It’s like looking at clouds or oddly-shaped food and discovering a face, or even the broader ways in which we anthropomorphize objects.
The performers take advantage of that creative instinct as they manipulate various materials into faces. One of the creatures of the evening consists of a performer entirely covered with green fabric, almost resembling a green bean. The fabric molds into a face, and as the creature exhibits sadness, glee, surprise, and fear, the audience empathizes with it, by laughing, uttering a sad “aww,” and other human reaction sounds to match the different situations the creature encounters.
What’s even more intriguing is that the various faces throughout the program display multiple levels of abstraction, yet we still understand it. We instinctively know the orientation of eyes in relation to the mouth, and the subtle shifts in their shape speak volumes.
It’s the same thing with the human body and how we perceive its orientation of arms, legs, and torso, even with an incomplete structure. For example, when foam shapes float through the blackened space, illuminated by a blacklight and maneuvered by black-clad performers, an upside-down ‘Y’ resembles legs, especially when the identical long shapes begin a rhythmic alternating traveling pattern—walking.
Another important aspect the show highlights is the universal nature of and our reliance on body language (something dancers and movement artists are acutely aware of), and much of the show hinges on this component. The giant hands (a Mummenschanz favorite) illustrate this right off the bat, as two performers don a costume covering the upper half of the body with a palm and five fingers. They interact with the audience, including petting the gleeful children sitting in the front row, but as the two characters turn their attention towards each other, the action turns mischievous.
One covets the possession of the other, that of a large egg-shaped object, and as the coveter distract the possessor, the former sneaks away with the egg. How do we know it’s sneaking? By the exaggerated and articulated movement of the legs and the effect the pattern has on the upper body. Surprised, the ninja stealer releases the egg and struts offstage.
Since the show is called you & me, many more relationship depictions occur. They all rely on the sense of space between two people — er, objects. Two performers with violins for heads flirt, and another pair of artists take turns manipulating the clay on each other’s head to create various funny faces.
Perhaps the most insightful segment, however, revolves around technology. Dressed in hoodies to purposely conceal the face, the performers hold objects resembling phones and tablets, while making recognizable usage gestures. Swipes, tapping, and selfies make us all laugh, but only because we all know how much of our day revolves around such usage. It’s quite telling, given that our reliance on text communication and technology has removed body language out of the equation, causing detrimental disconnects in communication.
Overall, the show is deliciously timeless. It appeals to all ages, but not because it’s a child’s show that makes adults feel nostalgic. It transcends age, language, and culture, because we are all human. And even though we don’t see the performer’s faces until the end, it’s the most human show out there.