That wasn't theatrical snow falling on Philadelphia Thursday night. It was the real deal - our first frozen precipitation of the season, snarling rush-hour traffic and forcing several busloads of patrons to arrive late at the Annenberg Center.

But inside, the atmosphere was welcoming and warm, as the celebrated troupe Mummenschanz worked its unique brand of magic. It will continue doing so through Sunday.

Founded in Switzerland in 1972, Mummenschanz tours all over the globe. This is its first local visit in 10 years, but the company has long been familiar to American audiences, beginning with its record-breaking three-year run on Broadway during the late 1970s and subsequent appearances on popular television shows such as Northern Exposure and The Muppet Show.

Mummenschanz's current program, 3 x 11, is a retrospective - two dozen micro-mini-acts, lasting a total of 90 minutes (with intermission). These include many of the group's most popular, classic bits, including the couple who have rolls of toilet paper where their facial features should be and the tall silver Slinky obsessed with an enormous pink balloon.

Other, equally unidentifiable creatures somehow manage to rearrange their own faces, or defy gravity. Mummenschanz makes its audience laugh out loud at slapstick sight gags, understand the subtlest of subtle gestures, gasp at abstract but gorgeous visual effects, and even (as cliched as it sounds) respond to a series of insightful and moving commentaries on human behavior.

This being Mummenschanz, all the above is accomplished without a single word; the audience can't even see the performers' faces, which are masked. But neither words nor faces are needed, since all four of these extraordinary actor-dancer-puppeteer-mimes (founding members Floriana Frassetto and Bernie Schurch, with relative newcomers Raffaella Mattioli and Pietro Montandon) have such impeccable comic timing, admirable physical flexibility, and the good fortune to work with lighting designer/technical director Jan Maria Lukas.

Mummenschanz is often referred to as "family entertainment," which it definitely is, based on the delighted giggles emanating from the many youngsters in Thursday's crowd. But rest assured that the adults I could see also had huge smiles on their faces.

Mummenschanz puts on a great show. It would be a shame to wait another decade to see it.

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