That’s what many audiences do when they see Wonderheads at work — and what locals will have the chance to do Saturday when the two-member troupe visits the Charleston Heights Arts Center to perform “Grim and Fischer.”
Billed as “a deathly comedy in full-face mask,” the 50-minute play showcases the physical theater of Wonderheads Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix.
Based in Portland, Ore., the duo has been described as “a live-action Pixar,” says Braidwood.
And the Wonderheads definitely don’t mind the comparison.
There’s an animated, cartoonish quality to their performances, Braidwood says during a telephone interview. “For me, it’s a very whimsical, imaginative form.”
Adds Phoenix: “We’re also big fans of silent film and old-school physical comedy,” a comparison that seems particularly apt, considering that “Grim and Fischer” is dialogue-free.
“We like having that limitation,” he explains. “It makes us solve the problem physically.”
Make that problems, because each of “Grim and Fischer’s” characters have them.
Mrs. Fischer (played by Braidwood) is a feisty grandmother who’s not ready to breathe her last — which becomes a problem when Death comes to call in the form of the aptly named Grim (alias Phoenix).
Grim’s aged target definitely rages against the dying of the light (to quote poet Dylan Thomas), even going so far as to bop him in the kisser with a frying pan.
“Sometimes you’re just trying to do your job,” observes Phoenix, “and you get hit in the face with a frying pan.”
One “Grim and Fischer” review describes the performance as “a riotous tragicomic slapstick farce that literally laughs in the face of Death,” according to the Edmonton Sun’s Mike Ross. “That is, until, in emotional gut drops that never feel maudlin, things get serious.”
Although neither Grim nor Mrs. Fischer speaks, “Grim and Fischer” does have a soundtrack — which includes Chopin’s pensive Nocturne in E flat major.
As for the play’s inspirations, Mrs. Fischer “is very strongly based” on Braidwood’s own grandmother, she notes.
And Phoenix says he had a few of his teachers in high school in mind when he created the character of Grim, adding that he’s always been interested in the “stuck-up kind of character” who’s just asking for comeuppance.
“The fun of our Grim is that he starts out that way,” Phoenix says, but he discovers “he’s just as fallible as everyone else.” And, perhaps, “maybe he’s more like us than we thought.”
When Braidwood and Phoenix were developing “Grim and Fischer,” both were dealing with aging, or dying, family members, she says.
“We wanted to explore those questions,” providing a new perspective on “a deeper, darker universal struggle: our fear of death,” the Wonderheads’ Internet site explains.
“We love treading that line between tragedy and comedy,” Braidwood says. “There are moments of extreme slapstick and comedy, (but) ultimately the theme is about death.” (That’s one reason they recommend “Grim and Fischer” for audiences 10 and older.)
“Grim and Fischer,” which marked Wonderheads’ debut in 2009, was first presented at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and went on to win numerous awards at various fringe festivals in the United States and Canada.
Wordless, full-face mask performances are a relative rarity in North America, according to Phoenix, because “what we’re doing is based in the European tradition,” with influences ranging from Italian commedia dell’arte, Swiss carnival masks and giant, bulbous-nose clown heads.
The two Wonderheads met at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California, where they earned master’s degrees in ensemble-based physical theater.
“It’s a fairly obscure degree,” Braidwood acknowledges, but the “intensive training, including mask work, led us to this form.”
Braidwood serves as mask-maker for Wonderheads, who this season are also touring another award-winning show, “Loon.” (As the duo’s website promotes it: “A man, The moon. A most peculiar love story.”)
As the two Wonderheads develop a piece, they’re not working from a conventional script, Phoenix notes.
“There’s a lot of improvisation” involved, he says. As well as a few occupational hazards.
Chief among the latter: limited visibility when they’re wearing the masks.
“We definitely had to learn how not to fall off the stage — and not to bump into each other,” Braidwood says.
After all, “it may look like the mask is seeing” what Grim is looking at onstage, Phoenix explains, but “his head is 6 inches above where my head stops.”
As a result, “his eyes are above my actual head,” he continues. So when Grim appears to be looking down his nose at Mrs. Fischer — a posture that suits Grim’s nature, Phoenix adds — that’s because the “eyeholes are in his nose.”
And though it appears the character is seeing with his eyes, the performer inside the mask is really watching her feet, he says.
Throughout the performance, the performers’ masks don’t move — yet, somehow, audiences think they do.
“The comment we get the most,” Braidwood says, is that “people are very surprised at how the masks seem to shift expressions.”
She chalks it up to the angle of the mask.
And, of course, to the emotion of the play, which prompts audiences to fill in the appropriate facial expressions — with their imaginations.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.