Blue Man Group, at the Warner Theatre, ramps up for the Twitter age
By Celia Wren
Thursday, March 24, 2011
The performance-art phenomenon known as the Blue Man Group is ready for the age of Twitter — maybe a little too ready. Extended spoofs of text messaging and smartphone apps have accompanied the troupe to the Warner Theatre, where the cerulean-skinned performers are larking about through April 3. The techno-zeitgeist gags don’t seem an entirely graceful fit for the slickly produced 90-minute spectacular, which also, thankfully, showcases Blue Man classics: the hilariously solemn high jinks with Cap’n Crunch; the ecstatic drumming sequences generating fountains of colored paint; the shtick with the Twinkies.
There may be some people unfamiliar with this entertainment brand, which has grown over the past two decades from a band of cheeky downtown New York artists to a mega-business with international stagings, appearances on TV series, an outlet in Las Vegas and a gig on a Norwegian cruise line. For them, it’s worth explaining that Blue Man Group extravaganzas feature the deadpan but wacky doings of mute, bald figures whose heads and necks gleam with azure greasepaint. The figures play percussion on what appear to be plumbing pipes. They catch hurled marshmallows in their mouths and turn the chewed white gelatinous substance into sculpture. If Marcel Duchamp were alive today, he’d go nuts for a Blue Man show, which is one part sci-fi pipe dream, one part nursery-school food fight, one part incipient conceptual-art essay question and 10 parts ecstatic surrealist happening — performed, for the most part, to a pulse-quickening score with an electro-tribal rock beat.
Some quintessentially impish Blue Man moments grace the Warner production, which is part of a tour scheduled for theatrical venues (as opposed to a previous rock concert arena tour that landed in nearly 300 cities across the United States). The Cobalt Ones eat Twinkies with a knife and fork, and appear to regurgitate Twinkie goo through their chests. They vacuum Christina off a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” They play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on a xylophone made of tubing. And in one truly breathtaking sequence, they shower the auditorium with white streamers and enormous white air-filled balls, which euphoric spectators can bat around. (Allergic to interactive theatrics? Be forewarned: Audience members are incorporated into several bits of business in this show.)
Such shenanigans can deliver a defibrillator jolt to a jaded theatergoer’s capacity for wonder. The wide-eyed mien of the Blue Men reconfigures our assumptions, so that we suddenly remember the essential mysteriousness of paint, the marvel that is a marshmallow.
By contrast, this production’s jokes about wireless devices and cyber-trends operate on a more cynical and familiar level. Giant iPhone-like panels emblazoned with app icons appear next to the Blue Men and proceed to relay factoids about spam, or display goofy reductions of literary classics (“Wuthering Heights,” “Hamlet,” etc.) in Twitter-feed-like format. At another point, silvery animated stick figures appear to text-message one another with observations such as “Who needs the 3rd dimension when u can text?” And there are brief video appearances of mock commercials — one for a Dental Hygiene cable channel, for instance. This kind of thing is funny, but not perspective-altering; you might catch similar jests on Comedy Central.
The video, animations and flashing texts are part of this production’s footage- and graphic-heavy aesthetic. A ginormous LED curtain hangs behind the stage, and screens descend when needed, so mediated images are everywhere. Colored helixes swoop and rotate behind the performers; spookily spidering lines evoke sci-fi dystopias such as “The Matrix”; screens relay images of the audience as Blue Men prowl through the aisles. The multimedia touches obviously help the production register in a relatively large venue like the Warner. (After all, not everyone can sit in the first few rows, where prudent viewers don ponchos.)
Unfortunately, necessary as it might be, the mediated imagery undermines the immediacy of the live performance. And it’s in live performance that the genius of Blue Man truly resides. Vaudeville acts with sugared cereal? There are probably a zillion on YouTube right now. But to be breathing the same air as an indigo space alien who is slathering his face with Cap’n Crunch — that’s a different shade of thrill.
Created and written by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink. Directed by Marcus Miller; production design, Joel Moritz; video design, Caryl Glaab; costume design, Chase Tyler; sound, Matt Koenig; music supervisor, Todd Perlmutter. About 90 minutes.