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Performance Mon Aug 31 2015

Blue Man Group @ Briar Street Theatre--A Rave For All Ages

Blue Man GroupThe show begins and ends with intertwining strands of DNA on a screen being watched by three awed Blue Men. Though those men never speak and seem alien at times, with their intense eyes and bald heads almost like inquisitive birds, we soon see that they are a lot like us. They like to bang on things. They are affected by each other. They like to play and interact. They are curious. They depend on one another for entertainment.

They entertain with giant LED balls, strobe lights, PVC plumbing tubes, Dayglo paint, black lights, electronic and live music, zithers, xylophones, drums, video screens in the shape of giant iPods, oversized streamers, interactive art, Jello tossing, audience interaction, and hypnotic fractals. You don't need to go to Burning Man to get your fill of these things. You can head straight to the Briar Street Theatre four nights a week and take part in the joyous ruckus that is known around the world as Blue Man Group.

I have lived in Chicago for their entire 18-year run here, and have avoided seeing the show, assuming I knew what they were about. Nevertheless, when an opportunity to attend the show emerged, I questioned my assumptions and decided I had been an asshat. "Are blue men not clowns?" I asked myself. So I signed up for a night of revelry with my most joyous and clown-embracing friend, and off we went to get blued.

A word about clowns. Clowns can sport a red nose and white face paint, or they can go natural and dress like you or me. They appear unexpectedly in movies, on TV, in the classroom, workplace and occasionally on a stage. They always wear a mask of some sort, even if the mask is just their character. Their job is to make you feel something. They are the core of any actor, a stripped down version of the human. They have to touch your heart, make you laugh or cry, make you think and make you remember what is important about life. It takes years of study to be a good clown and in some ways this magical art is fading, since so few people can pull it off and current drama trends favor the plot over character. But the Blue Man Group has found a niche market that interests everyone in clowning around and in this way they have reached far more of the live audience population than most clowns ever dream of. They've done this by keeping things relevant with modern tweaks to their show (like giant interactive iPhones) while also tuning us in to our humanity, by addressing modern issues and trends in a light-hearted way, even while questioning the role of technology and how it is affecting us.

Take a scene that begins with two-dimensional characters on the iPhone texting each other about what it would feel like to be three-dimensional. "Just wear 3-D glasses," says Guy 2. "No, like 3-D in the real world, instead of texting, we could have real conversations and look into each other's eyes." That thought is so freaky to Guy 2 that he unfriends Guy 1. But Guy 3 comes along and is up for some reality, but only if they ease in to it, starting with being 2.5-D. Then the Blue Men appear swathed in LED glow lights. Black lights shine upon them and a wild, interactive dance with light breaks out, smashing the 2-D world and filling it with color and life.

Messages like this throughout the show do not seem Luddite, or hypocritical. It is not about rejecting technology, since the entire show is resplendent with it, but rather about the human need to stay grounded and connected to other physical beings and not letting ourselves get carried away in to a virtual realm. It is like having your alphawave blue light cake and eating it too when they wed techno and folk sensibilities like this. A three-piece band painted in black light perches above the stage action, sometimes lit up and sometimes playing in darkness. Voice-overs and clever video pieces are interspersed throughout the performance.

The three Blue Men find volunteers in the audience by pacing around and making meaningful eye contact before hauling the willing onstage. My friend and I averted our eyes whenever they approached our zone. The volunteers experienced on-stage blueness that cannot be described, except to say that it was very interactive, entertaining and occasionally gross. Blue Man Gareth Hinsley spoke with us after the show and described the random selection process.

"We're always looking in the audience from the moment we come out," Hinsley said. "You might see someone, and it's all about that connection. You get very good about communicating very quickly."

He explained how he finds the interactive aspect of the show beautiful, whether the volunteer plays along or freezes because, "It may be uncomfortable but at least it's a real thing, you know? That just happened, whatever it is, however she reacted. Some would prefer something funny happen, but In essence that piece of the show is reserved as 'whatever happens is great'. It's very real. It's unplanned. And that in itself is a very fantastic, theatrical moment." It is no surprise he feels this way, considering there are nine shows a week and the audience portions are the wild cards of each show.

It is clear the Blue Men arrive ready to play. Each act seems like part of a variety show, somewhat random, with only the thread of music and exploration to tie them together. Still, they have all of the toys and tools at hand to get everyone involved. Giant messes make their way off the stage and in to the audience even more frequently than the Blue Men themselves do. We are called upon to dance, to recreate rock concert audience maneuvers, and even tricked in to singing. The audience is such a big part of the show that the camera travels down in to it, picking up expressions and even a tonsil shot on one occasion.

If our DNA is 99.9 percent the same, then Blue Men and we are clearly one, in spite of their baldness, blueness, and birdlike manners. Like every clown, it is their job to erase the barriers between us and show how ridiculously alike we all are. Your children will laugh out loud throughout the whole show. Your friends will gasp in surprise, and at some point you will be bopping a giant ball, covered in confetti, shaking your hind quarters, possibly while wearing a rain poncho and spattered in paint, depending on your aisle. Just don't make eye contact unless you are feeling brave.

Blue Man Group continues in an open run at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted. Shows are Wednesday-Sunday, with three shows on Saturday and two on Friday and Sunday. Tickets are $49-69 and can be bought online at dear old Ticketmaster.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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