Review: Mummenschanz Offers Wonder, and a Grumpy Trash Bag

Theater

At the end of “you & me,” the new show from the Swiss mime troupe Mummenschanz, you will applaud. That applause may feel a little strange: Are you doing it for the human performers, or for the creatures they have conjured out of skeins of plastic and lumps of foam, or for the passion and drive that have kept this generous, sui generis company producing giddy symbolism for more than 40 years? And is it weird that a mime show is kicking off a mild ontological crisis?

Also, the piece begins with a pair of seven-foot-tall hands engaged in a friendly pas de deux, so ordinary clapping seems inadequate.

Mummenschanz has been delighting children and their taller companions since 1972. (I’d planned to take one of my own children, but both were busy on the birthday party circuit and sent regrets, so I was delighted solo.) The group has to be seen — and sometimes touched — to be believed. B ut if you imagine the Muppets heavily influenced by French surrealism and a few psychotropics, you will have some idea. If you want to picture a quieter and drier “Symphonie Fantastique,” that works, too.

Mellow and breathlessly inventive, “you & me,” created by one of the troupe’s founders, Floriana Frassetto, in collaboration with Tina Kronis and Richard Alger, is a collection of classic, often amphibious routines, and a few new ones. Like other Mummenschanz shows, it is wordless and mostly silent. At a matinee performance I attended, several children were happy to volunteer sound effects and dramaturgical advice. “Big hugs!” one small boy kept suggesting whenever two creatures neared one another. Occasionally the creatures obliged. Even the armless ones.

The lighting, uncredited, is crepuscular, outlining the strange forms that slither, shiver and creep in from the wings. A couple are recognizable, like a chipper inchworm (or maybe a sea slug or an animate snap pea?) and a pair of swans. A lot aren’t. Many are adorable. That inchworm was a winner — go get that leaf! — and late in the show I fell for a grumpy trash bag.

Sometimes it’s easy to see how the human performers — black-clad and masked — manipulate these materials; sometimes the postindustrial creatures seem to move without any human help at all. In my favorite vignettes, the performers were all but invisible, their precision and athleticism (obvious in other sections) concealed beneath cloth and foam. “That’s silly!” kids shouted. And “Good job!” And “Do it again!”

Even at 80 minutes, the show perhaps goes too long. I started to hear a flurry of kids asking “Can we go?” across the aisle. The performance climaxes, then slinks on, crests again and continues. Two of the final sketches were humanoid ones; these, for me, were the least involving. Besides, I think we can all agree that silent beat-boxing is just odd. Still, a bit toward the end did emphasize the company’s debt to commedia dell’arte. Here is the anti-selfie lazzo you didn’t know you needed.

At its best, the show is a tribute to the ludic impulse that many of us carelessly abandoned back on the elementary school playground, the ability to make a branch or a puddle or a chunk of chalked up pavement into some new thing, some new world. It also speaks to a uniquely human need to endow pretty much everything with human qualities — animals, iPads, flotsam.

Scoff if you want to, but I’ll swear that my friend the trash bag was pretty annoyed.

Give him — her? it? them? — a hand.

you & me
Through July 22 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, mummenschanz.com. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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