By BRUCE DENNILL
Blue Man Group / Directed by Marcus Miller / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
There’s that old line: “If a tree fell in a forest and killed a mime, would anybody care?”, which is funny because the original joke had to do with the tree making a noise (or not), which mimes can’t/don’t, and there was the bonus of an irritating street performer dying a violent death. It’s a gag that appeals most to folk who don’t know or care about the many facets of the art of clowning, and the dark humour taps into a particularly unsophisticated part of our collective psyche.
Blue Man Group is more or less the antithesis of this scenario. The performers share the idea of the mask to make the performer a presence rather than a person (though theirs are of course blue latex head coverings rather than the traditional white face paint), and the aversion to speech, but the similarities end there.
Blue Man (there are three performers, but only one character) is a philosophy as much as he is a tangible being. The name is designed to evoke the word – and concept – “human”, and the show, in all its loud, blinding, bewildering, sensitive and hilarious (in the belly laugh, tears-down-your-cheeks sense) glory, is put together in such a way that it presents building blocks that can be melded together to create part of an understanding (and celebration) of what makes us tick as a species.
The production follows a number of the captivating principles of clowning and more, comprising a number of skits and set-pieces involving music, physical comedy, audience interaction, improvisation, artwork creation and more, but throughout this is a fascinating narrative suggesting the development of learned behaviour. The three performers stay unshakeably in character throughout, but the way they interact with the audience changes subtly over the course of the two-hour piece. They are always curious, but their awareness of the crowd or how members of it is at first expressed in a way that reminds you of a bird – head cocked to one side; eyes warily but not fearfully examining the cause of a noise or movement. Later, Blue Man begins to copy the actions of the volunteers who are brought into the story, mirroring their responses to applause (raised arms; accepting adulation) in a way they did not when the show began.
It’s hard to know where to focus as an onlooker. While some deep-seated emotional centre is occupied by the profound philosophical stuff, there is also much to engage every other sense.
A gargantuan, complex lighting rig does everything from isolating an unwitting volunteer in the front row to picking out the UV-sensitive make-up of the backing band, making the protagonists into larger-than-life silhouettes and recreating the inside of a heaving music venue as the Blue Man Group perform on their bizarre instruments. These contraptions are one of the trademarks of this now 25-year-old phenomenon – inventions constructed out of plumbing and pool pipes, looking like cast-offs from the set of Alien, played with a mixture of passion and precision that underlines the multi-faceted talents required of the actor-musician-dancer-clown individuals who audition for these parts.
There’s more – the aforementioned backing band, moving throughout and underpinning the antics of the frontmen with constant grooves; the phenomenal digital screens that become intricate props for a number of skits examining our interactions with mobile phones and other topics; and the littering of the theatre with streamers, paper and giant balls.
You need to stay involved and connected with what’s going on in order to get the most out of this production, but happily it’s more or less impossible to be distracted. This is not only because the performers are so intuitive and well-drilled that they can hit their hundreds of marks without breaking their personal connections with the crowd, but also because the stated goal of the show – to celebrate being alive – is so persuasively achieved that your being alive, and being in the room at the time, means that you’re intimately involved in the narrative. Not identifying with what happens on stage would be to deny part of your own character.