BOSTON — Remember Mummenschanz? The experimental Swiss mime troupe took Broadway by storm in the 1970s with wordless skits, malleable masks and hard-to-describe characters including toilet paper heads and notepad people. Words don’t do justice describing what they look like and what they do. Kermit the Frog introduced them like this when the three founding members appeared on “The Muppet Show” in 1976:
“The Mummenschanz do some very strange-looking things,” Kermie said. “Things that look like this…”
A human-sized, rather puppety, obviously athletic black blob wriggled and rolled across a platform on the theater’s stage.
Well that creature is wriggling again this week in Boston. Mummenschanz just started a U.S. tour celebrating the troupe’s 40th anniversary. The performers popped up Wednesday afternoon in the middle of Quincy Market.
Brian Woods was clearly surprised. He didn’t expect to be laughing over his lunch at a pair of huge, white-gloved hands — as big as people — sitting on top of legs in black tights sticking out of the bottom. They moved around the atrium, pointing and gesturing. One reached out and grabbed an unsuspecting passerby. Another man nearly punched the right hand (or was it the left?), evoking laughs from the crowd.
The performance was surreal and funny. Smiling, 42-year-old Woods admitted to having no idea what Mummenschanz is.
“Maybe it was a traumatic experience when I was young and I just blocked it out,” he joked. “No, I don’t remember these guys.”
When asked what he thought of the spectacle he called it innovative.
“This is a pretty cool act. I’ve seen things like Blue Man Group, but I’ve not seen anybody do anything quite like this, so this is pretty cool,” he added.
The entertainment magazine Variety actually described Blue Man Group as “Mummenschanz on acid.” And growing up outside of New York City, I remember the TV commercials for the Swiss troupe in the 1970s and ’80s. They left an imprint on my imagination, and I’m not alone.
“I’ve seen this before,” 54-year-old Brian Mauch, of Minnesota, told me. “I cannot remember when or where. It was very similar to what I’m seeing today.”
Which he said is just as interactive today, in 2012, as decades ago.
Florianna Frassetto sees what she does as an intimate “conversation” with the audience “in which it’s like we were old friends, and we’re meeting again, and we’re hushing a secret into our ears.”
Ears. Hushed secrets. Conversation. All interesting word choices for a founder of Mummenschanz. Kermit the Frog might agree. On “The Muppet Show” he attempted to interview members of the Swiss troupe.
“Well, this is the part of the show when I usually spend a few moments talking to the guest stars,” he said. “But in this case the Mummenschanz don’t talk — do you?”
Kermit was met with a spray of bubbles emitted from a being in a curious-looking mask.
Fact is, Frassetto is surprisingly chatty for a mime.
“Well, I guess I shut up the whole day, then I have to let it out,” Frassetto said.
During our interview, Frassetto and performance partner Philip Egli wanted to show me a famous mask routine: the notepad people.
They both put on black velvet masks with three giant notepads attached — two where the eyes should be, and one for a mouth. Frassetto and Egli use a black magic marker to fill the pages with wide eyes, pursed mouths and frowns. With the masks in place they looked at each other and started flipping the pages.
“And they’re competing of who speaks best, and who speak biggest, and who speaks greatest. And finally, they just don’t find the correct communication level, and so they start tearing one another’s faces off,” Frassetto explained. “Occasionally it happens in life.”
The notepads are one of Mummenschanz’s original acts. The troupe was born in Switzerland in 1972. Frassetto says she and her original partners didn’t have high expectations when they landed their gig on Broadway six years later. They thought they’d stay for four weeks.
“We will write postcards to everybody and say, ‘Hey we’re on Broadway, kids, guys back in Europe,’ ” she figured. “And then we started selling out for the next months and we stayed on three years.”
Not bad for a bunch of flower-power hippies, the 62-year-old joked.
“If you see some of the old photographs — the long skirts, the long hair — we had nothing to start with. So we went to look for things we would find on the street and recycle them,” Frassetto said. “So between the eye for objects and our baggage of messages, we came up with this kind of show.”
They re-purposed large, old ventilation tubes, then transformed them into humanoid Slinkies that moved through short, choreographed numbers with uncanny grace. They also made masks covered in clay that could be manipulated into comical, sometimes grotesque expressions. Over the years they’ve created 100 acts. Each one tells a little story.
Frasetto recalls how audiences around the globe connected with their wordless language, but Americans in particular “got” what they were doing. The New York run in the late 1970s ushered in what Frassetto calls “the great era” for Mummenschanz. World tours followed.
But in 1997, founding member Andres Bossard died of AIDS at age 47, devastating the troupe. But it carried on. Then Bernie Schurch — Frasetto’s former husband — stopped performing, but has stayed involved in the troupe’s evolution. For the Mummenschanz 40th anniversary tour, Frassetto is working closely with Philip Egli, an accomplished Swiss choreographer and dancer.
“In Switzerland it’s a brand, like the Swiss chocolate almost,” Egli explained.
Egli is 46 years old and has his own childhood memory of Mummenschanz.
“As a child one of my first theater experiences was that I went to Zurich with my mother, with my brothers and sisters, and we went to see some strange theater piece,” he recalled. “And I didn’t know what I was going to see, but coming out of the theater I probably saw from then on the cars not as cars but faces with two eyes.”
That experience illustrated the power of imagination, he said, and it inspired him to become a dancer. For Egli, the genius of Mummenschanz lies in its simplicity.
“The most beautiful pieces also in dance, they start from a black space,” Egli explained. “They don’t start with the set and the costumes and the big lighting and the great story — they start with some people on stage. I like to talk about human beings, even if we are now in masks — and we hide very much in Mummenschanz — but we talk about us.”
“I stay simple and I will always, till I live, stay simple,” Frassetto said with conviction. “Because this is our language, and I fight for this language very hard. And what is the best compliment is when people come back stage and say, ‘Hey, my kids at home, with their one finger they’re doing 30 things at once and not concentrating. Tonight there was no music, no words, they sat back and enjoyed it — just like real kids. Thank you!’ ”
Frassetto had so much to say about her career as a kinetic mime. In every skit the performer’s faces are covered, so I had to ask her if it’s challenging not to talk from beneath her mask while she’s performing on stage. She paused, then with a laugh replied, “Well sometimes you hear me, actually, but I won’t say with which words! But it’s usually in German anyway. It sounds better. It’s shorter. Or Italian.”
Mummenschanz is performing at the Shubert Theatre through Sunday, Dec. 9. Then the troupe heads to New York for a three-week run before wriggling its way to other stages across the U.S.