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Theatre Review: Blue Man Group -- Older and more ambitious -- after two years, the show is about more than pounding on things.

Blue Man Group: TUBES

Charles Playhouse

74 Warrenton St, Boston

931-2787

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

Three grown men, wearing identical uniforms, all their visible skin painted entirely in blue: there could not a simpler, or more brilliant, concept. The members of the Blue Man Group combine to give the effect of otherworldly mimes attempting to sort out, with a deadpan seriousness, the often bizarre culture of the late 20th century. At the same time, they have a childlike love of play that extends to everything they do, and after viewing the world through their more innocent eyes we are forced to re-evaluate why we always make our lives so needlessly complex. The group makes some powerful statements about society, but always imbued with their innovative brand of humor. This is performance art for the masses, and by the end you'll be wondering why nothing like this has been attempted before or since. Although the production is flawed at times and inconsistent, theirs is a vision that is nonetheless unique and exhilarating.

The show, which marks its two-year anniversary in Boston this month, features a rotating cast of eight Blue Men, three of whom are the actual creators and original cast members of the Blue Man Group since its inception in Off-Broadway. The show is called "Tubes", and the title is meant both literally, in the colored plastic tubing that lines the theater and hangs from the ceilings, and figuratively, in its exploration of the connections formed between people. The three never speak during the performance, but they do manage to communicate a great deal, using scrolling displays, signs, and pre-recorded film to make comments. Most of the communication, however, is done through choreography, gestures, and expressions; they teach by doing.

There is no denying the Blue Man Group's potency; they wash the stage, and the audience, in a continuous stream of light, ambient sound, and occasionally more tangible substances (those sitting in the first several rows are given raincoats before the show). They are forever on the move, flitting between one bizarre activity and the next. The three are talented drummers, and use this to powerful effect throughout the performance, banging on paint-covered kettle drums, custom-made xylophones, and long plastic tubes. Backed by a three-piece rock band, they create music that could almost sustain the show by itself.

The act explores our relationship to art, although the group's ultimate judgment on it is incoherent. One skit, which features the three examining a painting consisting of a dead fish on a canvas, simultaneously manages to trivialize both modern art and those who make fun of it. Their view of technology, which makes up for a sizable chunk of the show, is similarly unclear; a video they screen about fractals is both awe-inspiring and satirical.

In general, though, they enjoy making fun of the often ridiculously optimistic claims associated with modern technology. "Have you ever stuck your head in a vise and squeezed it so hard that liquid started coming out of your ears? You will," states a scrolling LED display, in one of a series of suggested future ads for AT&T. Another video makes even clearer the triteness of the technologies meant to bring us closer together, by making a direct, hilarious analogy between modern communication networks and the indoor plumbing system, in what may be the metaphorical backbone of the entire show.

The Blue Man Group's greatest moments are at times like these, when they engage in postmodern, cerebral flights of fancy that deflate societal pretension in everything from the supposed miracle of information technology to modern art to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit". Also entertaining is their idiot savant-like fascination with music and pulsing, rhythmic drumming. This drumming shows a primality that is rarely seen on stage, and carries with it a great deal of spiritual meaning, a direct contrast to the soullessness of modern culture which they mock.

Too often, however, the Group cops out and goes conventional; sadly, these were the parts that many in the audience seemed to enjoy most. Parts like one Blue Man catching Toblerone sections in his mouth, thrown to him by an audience member, or the three ejecting light-brown paste from their suits after eating Twinkies, are best left to the street performers. Perhaps these random acts were, like much of the performance, intended as a statement on the haphazardness of art, but in any case the irony fell on deaf ears.

These bits also highlighted another, more disturbing element of the show, namely the group's cynical take on the performer-audience relationship. Perhaps inspired by the conformity of their own uniforms, they played again and again with the idea that the audience can be made to do anything once they're in a group setting. Before the show even began, ushers passed around white streamers to all the audience members and gave instructions to wear them as headbands, and then scrolling displays on the stage gave explicit commands to say immature things as a group to specific audience members. The audience on the night I went dutifully and cheerfully obeyed it all. These and other bits of audience manipulation left a bad taste in my mouth. Revelations of banality in society are amusing; revelations of one's own banality seem like the violation of some unspoken contract.

In any case, there was enough originality and well-intentioned humor that met its target for me to still recommend the show. For all its flaws, this performance is exciting and thought-provoking; unless performance art ever hits the mainstream, it's unlikely you'll see anything else like it for a long time.