The Swiss-based physical-theater troupe Mummenschanz is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — a pretty good run for performers who don't speak. Which is not to say they don't communicate. When during their "Muppet Show" appearance in 1976 Kermit asked founding members Bernie Schürch, Andres Bossard, and Floriana Frassetto whether they had anything to say, two of them blew soap bubbles at him and the third pulled an egg out of his mouth.
There's always been something Muppet-like about Mummenschanz: The troupe's creations are zany and full of fun, but no matter what form — from slinkies to an electric socket — the performers take, they have something poignant to say about the human condition. Mummenschanz is making its sixth Celebrity Series appearance at the Citi Shubert Theatre this week, but its first since the 2002–03 season. For the troupe's 40th anniversary show, the four players — Frassetto with Philipp Egli, Raffaella Mattioli, and Pietro Montandon — pack 27 sketches into just under two hours (including a 25-minute intermission). You hardly have time to think about one bit before the next is in full swing.
It starts with some fumbling behind the curtains. A giant gray hand pulls back first one curtain, then the other, before taking a bow — but then the curtains fall back into place. The hand appears in front of the audience, where it seems to be groping the patrons in the front row. Back up onstage, a second hand pulls back the curtains. The first hand joins it on stage; the two see each other and embrace, then turn and point their index fingers at the audience, as if counting the house.
Audience interaction is invited. A giant ocher slinky keeps tossing its red balloon head toward the seats; Wednesday evening a couple of audience members threw the balloon back, though not high enough for the slinky to catch it, whereupon the slinky pointed its funnel top at the audience and shook it in dismay. Later, a figure in black with a cube for a head enters and wraps itself in bands of yellow tape to suggest the outlines of clothing before coming down to the floor and handing the tape to an audience member. On Wednesday, the resulting wrapping didn't meet with the figure's approval, but the yellow-tape face that a young audience member made for it did.
Some sketches are mere whimsy; others investigate serious matters, like relationships. A figure in black with blue toilet-paper rolls for its eyes, ears, nose, and mouth appears; then a second figure waltzes by, this one with pink toilet-roll features. They flirt with each other by unrolling the toilet paper in suggestive ways; at one point the blue figure atones for a courtship misstep by spewing paper from its mouth, making a nosegay of the paper, and presenting it to the pink figure.
And some sketches explore basic matters like eating. A green oval with a wide mouth — kind of like Kermit without the eyes — rolls up onto a platform, crinkles its face the way Kermit does, spots a morsel of food, scoops it up with a long red tongue, then spits it out and wipes the tongue on the platform, trying to get rid of the bad taste.
Only at the end do the four performers appear unmasked to take their bow. It's the mark of their artistry that you scarcely think about the impossible maneuvers — most invisible to the audience — they've just done. It all seems as natural as life itself.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.