Composer John Cage once wrote that
"art is the imitation of nature in her manner
of operation." Following this logic, the 21st
century finds Mother Nature fraught with electronic
messaging, vibrant splashes of reds and yellows
and endless acoustic possibilities—that is,
if you take the Blue Man Group's word for it. This
trio of blue-tinged performers has been captivating
audiences with its "illegitimate theater"
since 1991, treating viewers to a circus of colors,
rhythms, tomfoolery and homemade instruments.
Blue Man Group examines modernity with a bemused
curiosity, as a child might. Garbage pails morph
into drums and then paintbrushes as the Blue Man
pounds the paint-covered lids, cascading showers
of color onto a canvas overhead; marshmallows and
paint balls caught in their mouths are spit out,
transformed into works of art; Cap'n Crunch quickly
becomes a Blue Man symphony of call-and-response.
Clearly, this is not the theater you're used to.
Driving the show is a support band
of percussionists—their tribal rhythms saturating
the performance with a heightened sense of anticipation.
These musicians are as integral to the performance
as the Blue Men themselves. Their driving cadences
provide the show with its backbone, complementing
the antics of the performers on stage. Since the
Blue Men never speak a word in the 75-minute spectacle,
communicating instead through gestures, scrolling
electronic messages and facial expressions, the
music is a necessary tool for the trio—it
provides them with a voice. In fact, communication is a central concern
of the Blue Man Group and, consequently, a recurring
theme throughout the show.
At one point, the three cobalt
figures simultaneously flip through three stacks
of posters too fast for the audience to read all
the messages. The placards range from trivia as
simple as "A weekday edition of The New
York Times contains more information
than the average person was likely to come across
in a lifetime in 17th-century England"
to sardonic quips about the information age: "Once
again you have chosen the wrong poster to read.
While the people next to you read useful information,
you are stuck with the equivalent of junk mail."
The sketch is especially potent in our Internet-obsessed
era—you can get your message out there and
scream it till you're blue in the face, but that
is no guarantee you'll be heard.
In another scene, a screen shows
several connecting tubes while a voice-over talks
about the one system that ties the diverse populations
of the world together. But it's not the Internet
or the telephone—it's modern plumbing. The
voice continues, explaining that pressures within
the system sometimes send the input back out through
the original entry terminals, and only then is the
This satire belies the Blue Man's
true yearning for community and communication. Accordingly,
the trio does not detach itself from the audience.
At times, the Blue Men roam through the crowd, exploring
the audience, while other segments involve audience
members on stage with the performers. There is a
conscious effort to "blesh" with the audience.
The term, a combination of blend and
mesh, was adopted by the group from
Theodore Sturgeon's sci-fi novel More Than Human,
which is about limited beings with
singular talents who combine to form something far
The Blue Man Group just might be
the longest-running Happening in history. Although
by definition a Happening should occur only once,
this show has that kind of feel to it. Co-creators
Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink founded
the trio in 1987 with guerrilla performances on
New York City sidewalks, and the indoor performances
have preserved much of that public character. The
line separating performer from spectator is successfully
blurred. Audience members react to the Blue Men
as they roam throughout the crowd, and the Blue
Men, in turn, react to them. In a sense, the audience
makes its own theater—much like John Cage's
audience made its own music in his experimental
composition 4'33" (a "silent" piece
consisting of four and a half minutes of various
spontaneous sounds from the audience).
The group's grounding in the arts
is readily apparent. In one segment, a fish skeleton
on canvas—reminiscent of Dadaist Max Ernst's
Here Everything is Still Floating—is
descended from the rafters. The piece then becomes
the subject of the trio's high-toned art critique,
which scrolls across an electronic message board
above each performer's head. The group's allusion
to the Dada movement is not inadvertent. They cite
Dadaist humor as an influence, and the show parallels
the work of their Dada predecessors. Both reject
the notion that art can only be created by an initiated
few—a piece of art, the Blue Men attest, is
only a marshmallow chew away.
The Blue Man Group strips itself
of the pretentiousness of art—the ultimate
failure of the Dadaists—and what remains is
a wholly accessible piece of theater, if it can
be labeled theater. The show delivers serious ideas
in a candy wrapping, a hybrid of spectacle and philosophical
inquiry, and engages even the most fidgety patron.
How often does theater do that?
The show concludes with one last
communal ritual. Large rolls of paper tumble into
the crowd, accompanied by the thin slivers of a
strobe light and the pounding of the support band.
The theater throbs with energy as the trio and audience
alike clutch the descending paper, spider webbing
it throughout the theater. Finally, the music reaches
its apex, and the lights come up. The Blue Man's
"art playground" is now closed.