Physical theater becomes more commonplace all the time. Cirque du Soleil has become enormously successful, and groups like MOMIX and the Pilobolus dance company have toured the Memphis area. But before all of these groups were a twinkle in their founders' eye, there was Mummenschanz.
In 1976, an unusual three-year-old Swiss performance company that had been touring America went on The Muppet Show, and without uttering a single word, introduced a generation of young viewers to experimental theater, mask play, and a strange new derivation of Commedia dell'arte.
In one memorable bit, two actors in black tights sat side by side, each of their faces covered in amorphous blobs of clay. From his blobby nothingness, one performer sculpted a neat beard, then a nice mustache and some fluffy eyebrows. His less dexterous companion tried to copy the look, but without much success. As the face sculpting grew competitive, both actors morphed into terrifying bird monsters and flapped around, terrorizing one another until their faces collided and and stuck together, turning the two, into a single mess of sticky entanglement. It was silly, sublime, and unlike anything else you were likely to encounter on '70s TV.
The troupe's unusual name is derived from the German word for "mummer," a performer combining mime and mask play. But long before The Lion King or War Horse, Mummenschanz was also exploring the boundaries of puppet work. The latest tour is a retrospective of highlight performances from the company's 40-plus-year history.