Blue Man Group

at Briar Street Theatre, open run

By Carol Burbank

The lobby of the Briar Street Theatre has been transformed into a nest of tubes filled with light and pulsing liquids and an odd mechanical collage of music and voices. Tucked into the tubing are paintings hung at precarious angles, and the bathroom signs, though they declare “male” and “female,” both display the same sketch of a unisex figure in full welding gear. It’s immediately clear that Blue Man Group is not your usual low-tech performance-art event.

But it isn’t until you’re seated under the web of tubes that surrounds the audience that you realize Blue Man is something more than performance art. What’s the tip-off? It might be the raincoats provided to audience members in the first eight rows. It might be the digital readout that introduces special members of the audience and encourages everyone to speak to them in unison, behavior more appropriate to a wedding banquet or a baseball game than to performance art. Even the feeling in the room is different. People are talking, actually openly looking at one another and introducing themselves, comparing the headbands that stagehands are passing out to everyone. Audience members are not simply chatting, waiting for the lights to go down. They’re actively curious.

So it’s an exciting moment when the band, made up in neon colors, strikes up a driving, hard-edged rock-and-roll beat and the ten-foot-high cylinders of water on either side of the stage create swirling blue tornadoes. The stylized DNA strand projected onto the stage’s video screen begins to twirl too, toward the shadow of a slender, bald, androgynous but vaguely male person. The three Blue Men have arrived. At first they’re only frantically drumming silhouettes. But soon they’re moving quickly in all their silent, cobalt glory through an intensely playful evening that’s more an exploration than a show. It’s loud, it’s messy, and it’s gloriously surprising.

I first saw Blue Man a decade ago in Philadelphia, where the original troupe was touring its still developing show Tubes. Our Chicago troupe, like their Boston brothers, are a rotating group of Blue Men, currently 8 of the 16 performers who put on the show developed by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink. Blending writing, drumming, and computer graphics, they established an irreverent, brilliantly foolish vision of audience participation. Dressed in baggy industrial outfits, their blue hands and faces glowing, curiously expressionless, they offered the audience a mischievous challenge–connect, experiment, forget your habits, and laugh.

The Chicago troupe, which for the time being includes the original Blue Men, lives up to the standard of ten years ago. Goldman, Stanton, Wink, Brian Scott, Kristian Thorsen, John Grady, Tahmus Rounds, and Michael Cates (a Chicagoan who’s worked with Plasticene and Redmoon) will rotate into the show in various combinations. The evening I saw the piece, the performers had the same innocent air and split-second timing that made critics compare the troupe ten years ago to Buster Keaton, aliens, and machines. There are elements of all three in their swift, matter-of-fact movements, unbroken concentration, and deadpan charm.

Some of the segments seem almost identical to the production I first saw: paint is poured onto drums to create visible volcanoes of sound, portable digital displays project a stunningly satirical dialogue about art, the Blue Men sing a Cap’n Crunch oratorio of sorts, and the audience participates in games involving food and seemingly endless swirls of crepe paper. But there’s a techno virtuosity that didn’t exist in the earlier work and that brings the whole experience into dizzying focus: computer-generated graphics and special effects pump up the adrenaline as they polish the themes of connection and disconnection and the evening’s satirical edge. There are also chances to try a mind-twisting group karaoke, explore the world of fractals, and interact with modern art in a whimsically futuristic vision of computer design.

It’s difficult to convey the sudden, wide-eyed suspension of disbelief and habitual thinking that Blue Man creates–and I don’t want to spoil any of the show’s surprises. But what makes Tubes worth the price of admission–besides its technical innovations and fast-paced whimsy–is the kind of laughter that makes you look straight into the eyes of the guy in the next row and howl, the shock of a Blue Man’s hand firmly grasping your own, the hilarious insight into the Blue Men’s hierarchy, which shifts with every scene.

In fact, my only reservation about this magical production is that the high ticket prices will limit people’s access to it, which in turn reduces the kinds of connection possible in Blue Man’s tubular nest. The group can help anyone climb out of his or her grown-up skin and rediscover the necessary but almost lost pleasure of just playing–which Blue Man, ironically, shows to be more than an upper-class leisure activity.

Where faux magicians Penn and Teller make audiences feel wonder only to prove they’ve been suckered, Blue Man goes over the top to create a place where wonder is easy and honorable. Like its cousins in New York and Boston, the Chicago bastion of whimsy will probably be feeding audiences here a healthy dose of curiosity for a good long time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by John Mottern.