Company members of Mummenschanz returns to Cal Performances November 23-25. Photo: Gerry Born
Company members of Mummenschanz returns to Cal Performances November 23-25. Photo: Gerry Born

One day after feasting, football and family time on Thanksgiving Day, Cal Performances presents Switzerland’s Mummenschanz, a most bendable contemporary physical theater company celebrating 40 years in operation with their first North American tour since 2010.

Hailed for their ability to fold, twist, arc and teeter the human body into amorphous, immensely adorable creatures, the performance promises to delight anyone over the age of six. Even the younger set, who pose the particular challenge of wowing kids accustomed to Hollywood animation and 3-D special effects, can be reminded of one, astounding truth: these are real people performing mysterious, physical miracles — there’s nothing virtual about them.

Making their debut in 1972, Mummenschanz’s three founders brought a honed, sculptural sensibility to non-verbal theater. Dressed mostly in black, barefooted and with no sets or elaborate backdrops, storytelling burst from their dancer-bodies and the clever use of masks and props.

One Mummenschanz sketch makes use of different colored toilet paper. Photo: Pia Zanetti
One Mummenschanz sketch makes use of different colored toilet paper. Photo: Pia Zanetti

Often, the human condition — frailty, envy, silliness and love — left a bittersweet aftertaste, when initial surprise and giggles at the amazing antics faded from memory.

Founder Andres Bossard, who died of AIDS in 1992, was the master of mime and masks. His background as a cabaret performer meshed with Bernie Schürch, who met up with Bossard in Paris during the 1960s. Together with Floriana Frassetto — a clock-defying woman who will perform with the company in Berkeley — their combined sensibilities hit the sweet spot of European audiences.

Soon after, Broadway embraced the troupe, resulting in an unprecedented three-year run (for a mime troupe) and an appearance on television’s The Muppet Show in 1976.

Subsequent North American tours have brought out the crowds, eager to relive familiar sketches: one, involving toilet paper and another, an enormous, gray slinky-shaped “characters” whose encounters with an orange balloon suggest both sloth and circus.

As with music or dance, reviving or preserving a classic theatrical art form has inherent dangers. Critics may herald the company’s expertise  with mask and mime while simultaneously hounding them with “What’s new?”

Perhaps in anticipation of a mixed, hot/cold reception— or, coincidentally, due to the arrival of Phillip Egli, the newest member of the cast — the 40 Years production will offer both established and new works.

Egli arrives with choreographic awards and experience shaping large cultural projects for the stage. With a background including opera and complete evening-length works, the possibilities for his creating extended narrative arcs to contrast the company’s signature “short skit” approach, could be a welcome addition to their repertoire.

Raffaella Mattioli and Pietro Montandon complete the cast. Technical Director and Lighting Designer Jan Maria Lukas brings a sensibility regarding form — and how best to light it — from his work on art installations and fashion shows, in addition to staged theatrical productions. The Berkeley performances will run two hours, with intermission.

Mummenschanz runs Nov 23-25. For information and tickets visit Cal Performances.

Correction: We amended this article to reflect the fact that Mummenschanz are Swiss, not Swedish as originally stated.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.