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The Eminem controversy may have been the biggest story going into the recent Grammy Awards show, but Blue Man Group was the big one coming out of it. The voiceless percussion trio's astonishing performance with Moby and Jill Scott essentially stole Eminem's fire, and coupled with its current appearance in Intel’s Pentium computer chip TV commercials, has thrust the mysterious group-and its three skeletal backup musicians--into its brightest visibility in the 14 years since its inception. 

The first Blue Men appeared in New York City in 1988. They consisted of nine friends who’d met at a salon gathering, who decided to stage a funeral for the 80’s in Central Park. A piece of performance art, they symbolically threw Yuppies, cocaine and other artifacts of the day into a symbolic coffin that represented an “anti-time” capsule. 

As artist- waiters, the three founders Chris Wink, Phil Stanton, and Matt Goldman decided to take a big risk, and perform at the small-but-not-when-half-empty Astor Place Theatre in 1991. At the time, they used publicity to get attention, as well as founder Goldman’s technique of showing up early at the theatre, and trying to round up an audience out on the street. “We were killing ourselves, still creating the show while we were doing it”, he says. 

What a difference a decade has made. Now, there are some 33 Blue Men and 50 musicians rotating between New York, Boston, and Chicago, where the long-running "Blue Man: Tubes" productions remain ongoing, and Las Vegas, where "Blue Man Group-Live at Luxor" has run since March. Though the Vegas show is more spectacular, all feature the unique and self-created instruments for which their performances are known, including massive drums and immense polyvinyl chloride tube instruments, not to mention the “childlike stupidness” of the three blue principals.

Clearly, the Blue Man Group is from another world. "The three Blue Man characters have a unique relationship that is sometimes inspiring to watch as they explore things," the three founders explained recently in an online chat. "They seem to like playing percussive musical instruments. They also are attracted to vibrant, explosive colors and sometimes slightly scientific topics. Somehow they manage to sew it all together into a ritualistic, primal, comedic frenzy."

Indeed, at a performance last month at the Group's New York Astor Place Theater home, frenzy was the operative word. The Blue Men bashed away on their drums and tube instruments-including the tangled-up xylophone-like PVC Instrument, and the "drumbone," a trombone-ish construct made out of large tubes that produce varied pitches as one Blue Man slides tube sections back and forth while another pounds on one end. At another point, a Man poured gallons of paint onto the monster kettle-like drums played by his two cohorts, the paint splashing out over the stage and into the first six rows of poncho-clad attendees.

Less frenzied, though equally comedic, was the 20 ft. paintball toss, where a Blue Man caught a fast-pitched paintball in his mouth, then spit it out onto a canvas in a twisted take on abstract expressionism. This was followed by another Blue Man catching a score or two of marshmallows in his mouth, which took on the expression of the figure in The Scream.

Of course, bizarre is only keeping to form. All Blue Men are bald, their exposed heads and hands colored by bright blue grease paint. On this evening, their dark suits conceal, if not actual stomachfuls, sizable containers full of chunky orange sludge which spews through an orifice in the chest onto a hapless elderly lady brought on stage by the perplexed Blue Men. Much to their puzzlement-and the crowd's delight-she intuitively plays along as they sway to the boombox sounds of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," then attempt to discover the utility of a box of Twinkies (she teaches them how to tear off the cellophane wrapper-though not before one Blue Man successfully employs an electric jigsaw-then joins them in a rather formal Twinkies feast).

Do you intentionally poke a little fun at the pretension of "performance art"? Amazon.com asked the Group's founders. Replied Wink, "We use humor sometimes the way the great tricksters and jesters from all centuries sort of knocked down pretension a little bit."

But during a soundcheck at the Astor, Blue Man Pete Simpson likened "Tubes" to the tradition of vaudeville. "It has a similar ritualistic structure, which isn't linear, but proceeds from piece to piece with little 'mini-builds'," he said.

And just who, pray tell, is the Blue Man? "He's a curious creature, sensitive, vulnerable, animalistic," said Blue Man John Grady. "A mix of a superhero and a clown. A neutral clown with a task at hand. A shamanic guide who brings people together for an evening. Like animals, he acts intuitively." Much like the lady with the Twinkies.

"To us, the people in the audience are the aliens," said Blue Man Steve White. "As much as they want to figure out what we're all about, we want to figure out what they're about. So we take a dissection of the audience and put it under the microscope, then put it back into the audience to infuse it. Whether they get it or not is up to them!"

Clearly enough of them do to continue filling the house year after year, mostly through word-of-mouth. "People come from Brazil, Australia, Israel-and it's not from advertising," says Grady. "They say their friends saw it and told them to come."

“Some respond to the show's ‘circus event’ quality”, he says, “others to its ‘spiritual’ nature. It involves them on so many different levels."

After the performance last month, one woman shouted down from the balcony that her glasses were lost in the torrent of crepe paper that flooded the theater in the show's finale. Miraculously, they were found in a crepe paper mountain at the foot of the stage.

What is it about the Blue Man that’s ultimately so intriguing? They’re blue and they don’t speak. They’re kind of faceless and without any readily discernable personality, very childlike and innocent and inquisitive and also very talented and entertaining. They’re not like us yet they’re very much like us at the same time. There’s this sci-fi element of strangeness and the opposite, whatever that is-normalcy.

As founder Chris Wink says, “The Blue Man spurts colors. It becomes art or waste, depending where it lands.”

Interested in seeing The Blue Man Group? Check out their website at www.blueman.com for ticket information.

Interested in hearing the Blue Man Goup? They’ve released a cd called Audio, and a surround sound dvd, both available now. But don’t expect a soundtrack of the theatrical performance. As they say, “We were free to structure the music on its own terms and were able to create a listening experience that is unburdened by theatrical obligations.”

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 192 - November 2017
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