05/13/2016

Blue is the warmest color

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Pipe dream: The Blue Man group is known for elaborate musical instruments made of non-traditional materials like PVC pipes. Photo courtesy of LINDSEY BEST

I can still remember when our family bought our first flatscreen television. It was a Sony, I think, and when I picture it now it looks so ancient compared to the TVs you and I know. This one still looked a bit bulky and came with a sample VCD — that’s how old it was — to test out its display quality. As the grown-ups talked over lunch, my cousins and I played the VCD for lack of kid-friendly choices. (On the shelf, a pirated copy of Killing Me Softly sat close.) The sample video showed a group of guys in black clothes playing the drums and goofing around, absolutely stoic. Like they had no idea how silly they looked. As a kid, it seemed like a totally normal thing to watch this on a Sunday afternoon, and only years later did I wonder, “Why do they have to be blue?”

Later on I learned that these alienesque figures are called The Blue Man Group, a 25-year-old performance troupe founded in New York City. Even now it’s tricky to explain what it is that they really are. They have comedy but no verbal jokes. They could be theater, but there isn’t a strict narrative. They’re also a rock concert, but not quite so brutal on the ears. And it might just be a dance party, but it would be a disservice to limit it to that. I suppose they’re all these things and more, made more interesting with the addition of science and vibrant visual effects. Imagine taking hallucinogenic drugs without the ill-effects of illegal narcotics. A mom-approved, guilt-free LSD trip. (Actually, don’t imagine. Best to just lay off the drugs, period.)

Made even stranger is the fact that these dancing, instrument-playing, goofy oddballs are all painted blue. A very bombastic one too: neither baby blue or navy, it’s a very intense blue that reminds you of a blank TV screen when the cable is down. It’s a shade that may be largely forgotten on the Pantone swatch just because it’s so intense to look at, especially in real life. Why such an assault on the senses, I wanted to know. Because Wikipedia can’t be trusted these days, I turned to the number one source for such a question: the OG himself, Mr. Blue Man Phil Stanton.

I met Phil Stanton at the lobby of the Marina Bay Sands Kodak Theater. He’s a tall guy who gives me major Alan Arkin vibes, like his gruff but sweet character in Little Miss Sunshine. (Am I the young Abigal Breslin? I did not dare ask.) Phil is the co-founder of the Blue Man Group along with Chris Wink and Matt Goldman, which they started in 1991. I saw him in Singapore as we both checked out the Blue Man Group show there, one of their stops in this year’s world tour, which will be dropping by Manila in a few months. Before our formal interview, Phil asked me about the Imelda Marcos-inspired musical Here Lies Love, and he was surprisingly knowledgeable about its backstory, and said, “I imagine it would be a little… controversial to show it in Manila.”

Like the Blue Man character he created, Phil strikes me as a naturally curious person. Curiosity seems to be a buzzword among the Blue Man Group’s crew — the Blue Man can’t talk, so they communicate with actions. They touch things as though they’ve seen it for the first time, or they smear blue paint on unsuspecting people. (I mean, it’s cute. But a girl’s got a contour to worry about.) It’s one of the reasons why Phil and his friends put up the show in the first place, to celebrate mankind’s innate sense of wonder. It’s surreal, because well, the world is surreal. It’s pretty damn weird.

This is something they’d like to emphasize, even through the very blue that they use. Phil explained that the shade is called International Klein Blue, named after French artist Yves Klein. “Lots of [Klein’s] work was in a shade of blue that was like that. And he was kind of heady or philosophical about it. He thought that this kind of blue, I don’t know… had something about it that resonated. He talked about leaping into the void, and he thought that the color represented that. I do have to admit, that there’s a quality about it that really leaps into the eye.” He pauses, as though he just caught himself in a monologue, then laughs. “I don’t know, it’s just blue.”

Phil is no longer an active Blue Man. The Blue Men performing at the Kodak Theater (and would likely be in Manila) were not available for interview — the team prefers to keep them away from any publicity, just to maintain the characters. I finally saw them live at the media call, where they performed a couple of scenes that they would be doing in the gala performance later that night.

After minutes of PVC pipe instruments and the occasional stunt at the media call, I thought it would be fun to pre-game before the actual show. In my wrinkled blue dress, I lined up to order a bespoke Blue My Mind cocktail at the theater lobby. While I waited I began to hear discreet bells signaling that the show was about to start, which made me panic. I neither wanted to miss the show nor abandon my drink, so I resolved to get my drink on as fast as I could. But a kind word from the Filipina cashier changed my plans. She assured me that it was perfectly fine for me to bring my drink inside the theater.

Drinks inside the theater. Cocktails inside the theater. Welcome to civilization.

Close up: A backstage tour reveals the Blue Man Group’s color-coded pipe organ.
Tardy slip: The show offers a number of fun surprises, with one for latecomers.
Instafriend: The author with one of the Blue Men in Manila.
Spidery: One of the Blue Man group’s unusual instruments, also made of typical home improvement materials. Photos by Margarita Buenaventura
Total baller: The Blue Man Group’s multimedia show includes a whole lot of audience participation.

Feeling relaxed a bit, I marveled with her at this amazing phenomenon, and she, a seasoned Singaporean, was hardly impressed. “Only hot drinks and hot dogs are not allowed,” she said. No hot dogs, got it. After that dose of encouragement, I decided to add a pack of gummy dinosaurs to my order. The guy in line with me said they were “super super good.” He was about six years old and therefore had unimpeachable taste.

So I walked into the theater with my drink in one hand and my head held high. (The drink was a killer, by the way. My head did not stay up very long.) I can tell you this, though. The cocktail did not lie. My mind was properly blown away. Without giving away too many spoilers, I’d have to say that this show exceeded my expectations far beyond measure. It was breathtaking to see how they blended comedy, art, and science into a spectacular and digestible morsel — one that adults loved and kids giggled to. The Blue Man has a kind of humor that I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy again. None of the bawdy sex humor by Amy Schumer or the depressing dad jokes by Louis CK. Remember being seven years old and laughing at a Tom and Jerry skit, totally sober?

That was it. It was innocence of humor that struck me. When something is funny just because it made you laugh.

I thought that the magic would dissipate once I got to see what went on backstage, but it only amazed me more. The paint that the Blue Men wear is actually grease paint, which by the sound alone already feels gross on the skin. And because they’re very hands on in the show, they use blue gloves instead of paint on their hands, which they tend to layer up and just remove whenever it gets ripped. It’s a lot of rigorous, tiring work that looks easy at a glance. The level of teamwork needed to make sure that the music and visuals keep up with the constant improv is no joke. Seeing it all unfold felt like relearning how to be a young again, simply because of how much wonder it inspired.

Weeks after the show, I ran into the Blue Man group again, this time in Manila. They were doing a week of promotions, and were impressing the local media with their antics. Even in broad daylight, in a local conference room, they managed to make me smile. One of them came up to me and took a polaroid, and I said, “Do you remember me? We’ve seen each other before!” That moment would be later screen capped in a local TV segment. The way they were staring at me made me wonder if they wanted to marry me or kill me or both. Well, they would never break out of character, so I suppose it would have to be one more thing about the Blue Man that I will always wonder about.

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The Blue Man Group  will come to Manila on Sept. 14, for only two weeks, at The Theatre at Solaire. Tickets start at P1,018.90 and are available for purchase at ticketworld.com.ph. For more information on the show, visit bluesman.com, Facebook.com/ConcertusManila, or follow them on Instagram and Twitter @ConcertusManila.

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