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Blue Man Group


Grist for the mill

by Jeff Kuo

June 11, 2005 (7 pm) -- Charles Playhouse, Boston

What is Blue Man Group? Stand up comedy, theater, rock show, vaudeville, or dance? There is no easy way to describe the boundless humor, energy, eccentricity, and silliness of a Blue Man Group show. Is this, perhaps, the residue of the Pop Art and post-modern dance experiments of the 60s with their ambitions to rupture the aesthetic walls separating high and low culture?

[Incidentally, if this kind of theater does away with the barrier between audience and stage, then I note approvingly that more importantly they’ve done away with that most inconvenient of barriers – the one between the audience and the lobby bar. In other words, from your seat, you can order drinks from the youthful wait staff up until the show begins.]

The evening begins with de-programming to get us out of our generic theatrical mindsets. In fact, the pre-show is almost the most interesting part of the entire evening. For instance, guests sitting in the “poncho seats” wearing the opaque plastic sheets titter nervously in anticipation of heaven only knows what sort of inundation. (Fans of Elizabeth Streb/Ringside may recall the riot helmets for first row guests seeing “POPAction.”) The floor crew hand out fistfuls of crepe paper ribbons to be tied as a headband. Yes, it seems silly and has no function in the show; but since everybody else already has crepe on their heads, you actually feel more foolish if you don’t.

Exercising a virtual dictatorship, electronic marquees rehearse the audience in thanking guests who have supposedly won Pulitzers or have completed the Human Genome Project; these guests are forced to stand up. Then, the marquees rehearse the audience into chanting our love for another guest “who is not particularly remarkable” so that “he deserves our love even more”; he is also made to stand up. Another guest has a headache and another, a birthday (they don’t have to stand up). It is actually a relief to escape the tyrannical marquee when the show begins with a percussion number.

Though I’m never bored by the quasi-“Blast” and quasi-kodo-like drum numbers sprinkled throughout the evening, they aren’t enough to sustain an entire show. Fortunately, they don’t have to because if there is anything Blue Man Group resembles, it is vaudeville style variety theater. Non-narrative in content and assembled from a hodgepodge of what can only be called “skits” and “gags,” the otherwise structureless evening is unified by the percussion numbers, satirical pieces, and of course the inscrutable Blue Man Group themselves.

The Blue Men are amazing. Three androgynous figures in blue face and skull caps, black outfits, and boots, the Blue Men at times assume a hilarious deadpan expression and at other times look at each and at the world with a kind of childlike wonder. Certainly, they have no fear of the many fluids that comprise their act or of the unidentifiable substances that they put in their mouths (they’d be perfect for a special oral edition of Fear Factor).

The skits follow each other without pause. A game of paint splattering one upmanship is followed by long distance gumball and marshmallow mouth catching. After a strangely queer moment when the Blue Men caress each others faces, they invade the audience (i.e. breaking through the proscenium arch) and soon bring back the first of two audience participants, a girl game enough to join them in a twinkie eating skit full of gags involving a fire extinguisher, a jig saw, and a shop vacuum. The twinkie skit also features a gob of jello flung at the poncho seats and the ingestion of unnamable semi-liquid substances mixed with twinkie bits.

As in the vaudeville tradition, Blue Man Group skits poke fun at contemporary targets – high art, for example. There is an Yves Klein satire involving a triptych of three fish and an audience participant who is taken offstage to be hung by his feet, smeared with blue paint, and flung against a large canvas. He was a big guy so I’m sure it didn’t hurt too much.

In another skit, the authoritative electronic voice of a self-actualization rock-n-roll website advises the Blue Man Group that whereas rock music formerly was a folkish reaction to the industrialization of the modern world, now rock is all about Choreographed Dance Moves – pelvic swivels, isolations, hand pumping, and etc. The sight of the three android-like figures arms akimbo and pelvises grinding is itself worth the price of admission. Elitist high art, American mass culture, whatever – they’re all grist for the Blue Man Group’s mill.

Vaudeville inherited the tradition of the “improvement lecture” which included demonstrations of the latest scientific marvel. At the turn of the last century, that might have meant such wonders as anatomy lectures and early (silent) film (e.g. see Guiliana Bruno on the Italian primitive cinema). In the Blue Man Group’s hands, both anatomy and film are combined in a novelty skit featuring a video camera which seems to go through a surprised guest’s mouth and through a fantastic journey into what in medical lingo, I believe, is called “the upper aerodigestive tract.”

The Blue Men may disdain conventionality but they are astute enough showmen to program a fast and furious, multimedia, participatory finish. I’ll hold off on describing the big finale for those who haven’t experienced the show yet, but let’s say it involves strobe lights, very loud techno/industrial music, and a great deal of coarse toilet paper.

Individual casting credits are not part of the Blue Man Group philosophy, but set design is credited to David Gallo and Lauren Helpern, lighting to Matthew McCarthy, sound to Jon Weston, video to Caryl Glaar and Dennis Diamond, and Blue Man costumes to Patricia Murphy. The Blue Man organization’s writers, directors, and producers are Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink with artistic and musical collaborators, Larry Heinemann and Ian Pai. Be sure to thank the stage and floor crew for the expert and discrete management of numerous intrusions of stage space into audience space.

One final note – don’t show up late – the Blue Men will set off a loud siren, halt the show, and shine a spotlight and video camera on you for the entire house to laugh at.


Edited by Staff.

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