Theatre of the absurd

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 October, 2003, 12:00am

WHEN YOU MEET Floriana Frassetto and Bernie Schurch you can't quite imagine them dressing up as a sheet of trailing foam packaging, or as an open window complete with shutters and flower pots. These two are the grandees of the stage and they carry themselves with that elegant posture that so often goes with a lifetime in the theatre.

But as two of the founding members of the Swiss troupe Mummenschanz, they have made it their life's work adopting costumes that transform them into expressive figures and fantastical inventions. Mummenschanz - who take their name from the Swiss word for the masks medieval soldiers wore to hide their emotions - is one of Europe's most respected companies. Their show is hard to characterise. It combines mime, puppetry, acting, dance and pantomime. The characters on stage interact with each other, as well as the audience, and they appeal to people from four to 94 because their gently teasing show uses mime, not language, to tell stories of everyday life.

'We are so stubborn,' Schurch says. 'We not only put aside the spoken word, but also sound and stage decoration. It's become characteristic of our theatre that we perform in what seems like a black box, so everything that's communicated between the audience and the stage is what the characters do.'

All the costumes are made by the four company members who seek out everyday objects and transform them. They do this from a combination of feeling that we waste too much of what we use and an idea that it's fun to take an object as un-theatrical as foam insulating material and transform it so it has a character and persona all of its own.

'We walk around streets, warehouses, department stores and back roads. There are so many materials people use to wrap things for example, to give them a nice look, and then they throw them out,' Schurch says. 'We go to the garbage heaps, we pull out those things and convert them into something they were never designed for.'

'To give them a soul,' Frassetto explains.

The company meld the materials together and then start improvising to see what works and what doesn't. Costumes need to be both visually interesting and allow the actors to move freely on stage, so the types of materials they use tend to be lightweight plastics, foam sheeting and fabrics. As Mummenschanz formed in 1972, it's a wonder that they have never been tempted to go hi-tech given how much materials - and what we routinely throw away - have changed in the past 30 years.

'Well, we tried once,' Schurch says. 'This crazy friend of ours made a lamp mask which had hundreds of tiny bulbs and miles of cables. You touched it with something like a pen and different bulbs would light up to make different faces and shapes. But it was so heavy. You couldn't move with this thing on your head. We've tried so many things that failed. In our studio we have a heap of garbage, there are cables, cardboard, lights and foam, but every so often we pull out something and years later it fits.'

As Schurch describes it, the company decided to 'sacrifice the spoke word' which partially explains why their shows have the longevity they do, appealing to audiences of every age the world over. 'We hope family members and children come to our shows,' says Frassetto. 'Children are so spontaneous they have a playfulness. Adults are a bit reserved. They are always asking themselves, should I laugh at this, and they analyse what's going on. We want them to let go in the way that children do.'

Mummenschanz have performed in Hong Kong several times before, but their forthcoming tour takes them to the mainland for the first time.

It's a sweet moment for them. They are part of the first official cultural exchange between the Swiss Confederation and the mainland. Over the years tours had been discussed, but the group's work was thought to be too subversive - face masks and costumes metamorphosing into other faces and shapes, was deemed politically unacceptable. For this reason Frassetto is particularly thrilled to finally be touring the show to three Chinese cities (Shanghai, Beijing and Qingdao). 'These are very expressive poetic sketches, so I am very curious as to how it's going to work in China,' she says.

Given the success of Mummenschanz the troupe could have gone the Cirque du Soleil way and spawned a whole series of Mummenschanzes around the world, but the company are adamant that their successful formula won't be changed.

Mummenschanz Next, Auditorium, Kwai Tsing Theatre. Nov 7-8, 7.30pm; Nov 9, 3pm. $100, $130, $160 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2268 7323