Part of the fun of a Mummenschanz performance has always been trying to figure out how Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto and/or Bernie Schuerch manipulate those enormous, ever-changing and spectacularly unwieldy body masks they wear.
At the Beverly Theatre on Saturday, their wondrous improbabilities included an immense squid-like creature with four tentacles independently lashing out across the full length of the stage; an accordion-pleated, tubular metal Slinky-esque coil endlessly expanding, collapsing and re-forming itself; huge inflated structures and figures that either collided in slow motion, like mammoth, wind-blown parade balloons or took sumo stances and struck one another in weightless, and headless, combat.
This time, however, manipulation became not merely the essential process but the unifying theme of the Mummenschanz performance: manipulation at its most arrogant, ridiculous and familiar.
The evening began with giant hands parting the curtain and welcoming the audience with effusive finger-wagging--the glad-hand treatment on a colossal scale. One even roamed the aisles for that personal touch, offering at one point a big hand for a little lady.
Thereafter, the hands reappeared as meddling presences: toppling one routine, adding unnecessary embellishment to another, sticking an unwanted finger into an amorphous floating swirl of material--which instinctively contracted like a sea urchin--and setting in motion the little blank-faced humanoid who launched the small-scale satiric skits in the second half of the evening.
These hands also introduced the performance's visual sub-themes (unattached heads , for instance) and, in the end, became heroes--saving the audience from being devoured by a glistening, hungry blob that had already swelled to fill the entire stage (floor-to-flies, wing-to-wing) and now moved implacably forward.
Thus these weren't evil hands--Mummenschanz dispenses only the most affirmative and humane satire--just excessively heavy-, high-handed hands.
Their actions proved preferable by far to those of the addle-pated, empty-headed faces on view. Inflated faces, puffing up or shriveling away with every wind that blows. Highly distinctive faces that turn out to be nothing but one-dimensional profiles; magnetic faces that attract so much quasi-cosmetic decoration that they lose all connection to the body that once supported them; conceited media faces courting applause by using an extravagantly mobile mouth to fake histrionic versatility.
We all know faces like those, but Mummenschanz revealed them in metaphorical essence through techniques derived from puppetry, pantomime, dancing, stage magic, film animation, folk carnivals and masked drama worldwide. Like Pilobolus, this is a whimsical, gloriously impure movement theater that arose in the early '70s to explore new expressive and collaborative possibilities.
Some of its effects can be as simple, and definitive, as a rakish, 6-foot male electrical plug connecting with a consenting female socket (the lights went on, and off, and on, and off . . . ). Or they may involve a dazzling soft-sculpture metamorphosis achieved through an intricate relationship between performers and the elaborate costumes encasing them.
Whatever, their playful and telling repertory programs have become one of the infallible pleasures of a very imperfect world. They have never been matched and they should never be missed.