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Theater Review: Blue Man Group -- Modern art's guerrilla warriors

By Bence P. Olveczky
Staff Reporter

Blue Man Group

Charles Playhouse, 74 Warrenton Street, Boston

Tickets: $35-$45

Call 426-6912 for tickets and information on how to see the show for free by ushering

Part guerrilla art, part pantomime, part rock concert, and part circus, the Blue Man Group's Tubes is an entertaining and visceral production that mocks the art establishment and its pseudo-intellectual proponents while showing that theater can still be frenzied, frantic, and fun. The fact that the show, which started out as a New York street act, is in its third year at the Charles Playhouse is itself a testimony of its high quality.

Tubes has no narrative or dialogue. The three Blue Men inhabiting the stage communicate through music, electronic signs, mime, and video projections, carrying ample reference to the art world and pop culture. It is as if the performers are extra terrestrials who have broken into the Museum of Modern Art and Wal-mart. We see them trying to make sense of contemporary paintings, sculptures, and consumer products, and we are entertained by their comic efforts to grasp how these strange artifacts could have come into existence. The re-creation of our external reality by these seemingly perplexed outsiders becomes a sharp social commentary on the alienation of the individual in a technocratic society where even art has lost touch with its audience.

Blue Man Group puts fun back in art, engaging the audience in an interactive and almost tribal celebration of artistic innovation. They are the magicians who pull off one trick after another at a pace worthy of David Copperfield on speed. A toilet paper orgy accompanied by trance music, a surreal Cap'n Crunch eating contest, and the catapulting of jelly into the auditorium may not make for sophisticated theater, but it is all very engaging and physical, speaking to our inner child.

The fast paced and dynamic two-hour performance is never repetitive or boring. Each sketch is full of surprises, exhilarating audio-visual effects, and interactions with the audience, and while the show brushes the borders of vulgarity, it never crosses into the realm of bad taste. The different scenes, seemingly disconnected from each other, are intertwined with hard and raw rock music, with drums and percussion being the vital instruments for the Blue Men.

The art world is where the founders of the Blue Man Group emerged from and it is where they belong. Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink first started performing their act outside the nightclubs and galleries of New York City. Their production references modern art in a way that is both funny and critical. Scenes reminiscent of Andy Warhol's pop-art, Jackson Pollock's action paintings, and Yves Klein's blue body paintings are abundant. Conceptual Art's favorite toy, the running electronic sign, is made into an effective tool of communication, while video is used to provide close-ups of the performers and to relay to the audience the back-stage happenings.

The show moved from the street into the experimental space of the famous New York institution La Mamas, where the first performance of Tubes took place in 1991. The Blue Man Group soon found a permanent place in the Astor Place and have now expanded with shows in both Boston and Chicago. They are set to play as long as the audience keeps coming, and there seems to be no imminent danger of abating interest. The Charles Playhouse has been nearly sold-out every night since October 1995.

While the production may have lost much of the urgency and spontaneity of the seventies performance art that so clearly inspired it, the Blue Man Group is a prime example of how avant-garde theater can make it into the mainstream without big bucks and big names. They started out in the streets and worked on improving the show for many years. The product that is now showing at the Charles Playhouse is a celebration of what contemporary art could and should be like: a funny and furious commentary on our modern society.