News Column

Blue Man Group rolling into Charlottesville this week

November 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 13--Mute and bemused, the Smurf-hued mimes who orchestrate the bizarrely imaginative spectacle that is Blue Man Group continue to labor in obscurity as the wordless cogs in a fiercely profitable franchise.

Still busy wowing the masses after more than two decades of theatrically-sound entertainment, founders Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink have watched as their street-side act, rooted in the New York performing arts scene of the late 1980s, has grown into a bona fide conglomerate with a rotating cast of minions appearing in venues from Boston to Berlin.

"I don't want to give too much away for everybody because it's definitely something that takes people aback and takes them for a ride," says Brian Tavener, a North Carolina native who first donned the trademark makeup in 2007 and will join his fellow sea-washed brethren when the national tour rolls into Charlottesville's John Paul Jones Arena this Thursday.

"But, from the very beginning, I think the best surprise is when the Blue Man shows up, when the Blue Man is first seen, they're just as confused as the audience is. You know, 'Why are we here? Why are you here?' It's an interesting question to kind of start things off, because the show is the audience. We're just there encountering them. It's a definite breaking of the fourth wall. Everyone occupies the space. And, I think, that's the best part: just having a party with a few thousand strangers."

The wildly successful troupe's stage genesis dates back to the fall of 1991, when the creators opened "Blue Man Group: Tubes" at the Astor Place Theater, located on the fringe of the Big Apple's East Village. Now one of the city's longest-running shows, it ushered in an era of popular Off-Broadway productions -- like "Stomp" and "De La Guarda" -- that relied heavily on dramatic demonstrations.

"Tubes" became a singularly strange and alluring event, radically testing the limits of commercial pageantry with a kind of elaborate vaudeville featuring digitized video segments, heart-pounding percussion and droll human stunts -- like catching a flurry of tossed marshmallows in the mouth.

By the early 2000s, the baffling bald misfits were regular guests on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," turning up in advertisements for Intel computers and shocking crowds hungry for action on the Vegas Strip. Before long, metropolitan locales like Chicago, Toronto and Tokyo jumped on the bandwagon, landing their own presentations of the ensemble's artistic feats.

In 2007, the group even began a residency at Universal Studios in Orlando, guaranteeing a place where the company's sky-colored heroes can flaunt their amalgam of music, improv and general madness for years to come.

"The instruments in the show are really interesting," Tavener says. "They're supposed to be creative takes on how to make noise with everyday objects. So PVC pipes, that's the main instrument. But, really, a lot of the drums, shaking and everything, they're just inventive. They're things you can make up, things you can find in everyday worlds and make music with. That's kind of the Blue Man's thing."

Occupying the stage as a trio, the characters are part wide-eyed innocents and part merry pranksters toying with audience expectations -- an essential attribute that's backed by a full-scale rock concert featuring a four-piece band and a whirling m lange of visual effects, including a large matrix of LED screens and an extensive lighting array.

The trick is that underneath the high-tech wizardry and propulsive, tribal rhythms, the subtext still seems aimed at scratching the itch of the spectator's inner-child, as his or her affable hosts -- the three Blue Men -- remain impassive yet curiously naive in the way they explore their whimsical surroundings.

"The mystery element is big with Blue Man," Tavener says. "A lot of times, differently from Disney or mascots, with the Blue Man character, we can portray this sort of mysterious, almost human-like, existence. There are these questions that the audience has: 'Who are these people? Where are they coming from? Why are they here? How are they going to interact with us? I hope they don't pick me [laughs].' That sort of thing goes through the audience's mind.

"The child-like element is there from the beginning as well. That's just with this makeup color, the baldness. The Blue Man portrays these child-like innocent archetypes. But there is also a mysterious, darker side to the character that balances that out. So it's really our goal to reach into the audience members and find those same qualities within them. That's part of the study, part of the trance. It's fun to see it blossom."

While the troupe's following has made them a contemporary staple, becoming one of the painted protagonists isn't exactly the easiest job to get.

They must be skilled percussionists, have a sense of comedic timing, be between 5 foot 10 and 6 foot 1, with an "athletic build," and possess the type of acting chops needed to convey the required amount of exaggerated sentiment -- using mainly just their eyes -- to keep the crowd engaged throughout the entire 90-minute performance.

Auditioning for the part can turn into a marathon tryout session, replete with extensive screening interviews and a series of exercises meant to test how well the hopefuls can speak without uttering a single word.

"It's kind of hard for people to believe that we are actually human beings," Tavener says. "That's our main goal: to be other, to be other than. For me, it's still a huge challenge to perform the role. In fact, the best shows, I don't really do much acting. I'm just present in the moment, you know, letting the makeup do its work. But, I think, that makes the show thrive, having a challenge up there every night."

A recent update to the production finds the Blue Men addressing notions of alienation brought on by a lack of communication, inspiring scenes where they focus on the sly skewering of the technology that tends to saturate our culture.

If there's a loose thematic thread to the show these days, it might be that active movement is undervalued in the 21st century, and passivity is an unhealthy consequence of virtual realities, specifically the feeling of disconnectedness that sometimes exists in the age of social media.

But the group never has lost the capacity for presenting these pervasive concepts in a way that highlights their juvenile sense of humor, like the introduction of "GiPads" (or door-sized electronic tablets), which prove they still embrace the here and now, even if there's a certain acknowledgment of tension between the digital realm and the reality of it being a valuable tool for human expression.

"We don't make fun of but fun out of these objects," Tavener says. "We try to make a point of saying, 'Yes, they are amazing. But let's not let them get in the way of our connection.' The whole show is about that. It's about having intimate moments with people and really getting in there to see what they need to welcome their neighbor, sitting next to them, in this community experience."

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(c)2013 The News & Advance (Lynchburg, Va.)

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