Photo of Toronto cast by David Hawe
Blue Man Group
written and directed by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton & Chris Wink
Blue Man Productions, Panasonic Theatre, Toronto
June 19, 2005-open run
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
“Feed Your Head”
What is “Blue Man Group”? The simple answer is that it’s 90 minutes of non-stop fun. The more complicated answer is that it’s a kind of techno-psychedelic neo-vaudeville performance art that is also a satire of performance art. Percussion, painting, videos, eating and spitting out, mime and audience participation are all involved. It’s “Stomp” meets “Slava’s Snowshow” and if you liked either of those shows, you’ll surely like this.
Blue Man Group was created in the late 1980s by three friends, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, who made public appearances on the streets of New York City and in alternative performance spaces as the three mute, bald characters with cobalt-blue heads and hands. Eventually, this led to their first full-length show in the fall of 1991. The success of that show, still running off-Broadway, led to the establishment of Blue Man Group shows in Boston in 1995, Chicago in 1997 and in Las Vegas in 2000. Further sit-down shows in Berlin in 2004 and in Toronto this year mark the beginning of their expansion internationally. Blue Man Group are probably best known to the average person for the series of commercials they made for Intel in 200 and 2001.
The show takes place in the Panasonic Theatre, an entirely new, up-to-date facility with a balcony and fly tower and a capacity of 701. It is built on the site of the old New Yorker Theatre at 651 Yonge Street, paradoxically preserving and then obscuring the New Yorker’s old façade. Far from the New Yorker’s faded warmth, the Panasonic is all carpet-less cement and metal, intentionally suggesting an industrial warehouse.
The general effect of the show is that we are attending a performance staged by three odd-looking but kindly aliens who do things they find pleasing even if we find them peculiar. The Blue Men you see may be any three of the following--Scott Bishop, Tom Galassi, Yann, Geoffroy, Matt Goldman, Randall Jaynes, Jason McLin, Jonathan Taylor, Phil Stanton or Chris Wink--a group that includes both Americans and Canadians, seasoned Blue Men and new-comers. The three begin with one of their signature pieces, playing drums whose tops have been inundated with paint. Wearing welder’s masks they give the illusion of stirring up cauldrons of molten metal.
In their next signature piece they demonstrate a fairly amazing talent for catching things in an unusual way. One Blue Man throws paint balls to another half the distance of the stage away who catches them in his mouth and then squirts them out onto a blank canvas. Another Blue Man on the other side catches more marshmallow-sized bits of clay than you want to think of in his mouth, only to disgorge them on a canvas in a pile setting the sign “$4000” in front.
The theme that unites this assemblage of bizarre skits is consuming and processing as related to both food, information and art. The satire is derived primarily by relating the second two to the first. We’re shown a video animation about how the world is becoming increasingly interconnected. We assume from all the stationary hubs and flowing arrows the subject is the internet. Nope, it’s about plumbing. The Blue Men then proceed to explore the sound-making possibilities of large sections of PVC pipe. At the other end of the alimentary canal, the three fill their mouths with Captain Crunch cereal and create a percussion of miked rhythmic crunches accompanied by a live four-piece band above the stage.
There are several high-tech effects where the trio interact with video projections. The most successful of these is where each Blue Man’s head has been replaced with a television screen and the Blue Men create percussive beats by knocking their virtual heads again the frame of the TV picture. The interplay of live objects and their appearance and disappearance in the screens, not to mention the screening of fake commercials behind the heads, is intricate, clever and very funny.
Nevertheless, the best episodes are the simplest. The three each flip through a series of posters each demanding we pay attention only to his set of posters--an elegant way of communicating the problem of information overload. The funniest sequence by far is when a member of the audience is invited on stage to share a formal snack of Twinkies with the group. First the volunteer has to show the Blue Men how to open the plastic wrapper. Then, as if trying to learn human etiquette, the three watch intently as the volunteer tries to eat the Twinkie with knife and fork. They scrutinize and imitate every action, often hilariously misinterpreting what is accidental for what is intentional. This scene epitomizes what is so much fun about the show. In their guise as aliens, the Blue Men approach everyday objects as if for the first time, often finding unintended but highly creative uses for them.
As in “Stomp” (1991) or “Slava’s Snowshow” (1993), the Blue Men bring out in the audience a sense of childlike imagination confronting a brand new world. It is also a childish imagination since the Blue Men seem to relish a good, fine mess. People seated in the first five rows have to wear clear plastic ponchos to protect them from the large quantity of flying food, paint and Jell-O flung about during the performance. The show ends with the strobe-lit audience trying to cope with a horizontal flash flood of crepe paper.
Not every sequence is equally effective. The videos of “backstage” action are not interesting, and some may find the volume of the music much too high. Yet, it’s a rare show that can make both adults and teens feel as giddy as children. English is used in signs and voice-overs, but since the Blue Men communicate entirely through mime, it’s a show non-English speakers should enjoy.
At one point the Blue Men play an instrument constructed of pipe openings and ask the audience to sing along karaoke style to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. All goes well until the words on the scrolling pixelboards in front of each Blue Man start displaying different sets of lyrics. Performance art, popular culture, conformism are thus both promoted and sent up at the same time. At “Blue Man Group” you will “Feed your head” and have a great time, too.
Photo of Toronto cast by Paula Wilson