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Blue Man Group performs "Tubes"

But Is It Art? Blue Man Group explodes the art scene, psychedelia and Twinkies.

Although Blue Man Group has been playing for five years Off-Broadway, at the Astor Place Theater, and recently passed its first anniversary at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, the most common response to the name is still, "I've heard of that ... what is it?" The question persists because it's one only the show itself, called _Tubes,_ can really answer. It is strange and elusive and -- that overused absolute for once applied accurately -- unique.

Anyway, here goes.

It's three men painted blue and a three-man rock band in day-glow warpaint. It's an ingenious piece of performance art that parodies performance art (and fine art, and the pretentious art world in general). It's an unsettling compound of sharp cultural satire and gross-out gags. It's probably the world's only show in which the program credits a "Jell-O consultant."

It's a commentary on postmodern information overload that makes its point through information overload. It's loud, muscular percussion and energetic instrumental rock. It's sophisticated electronic and video effects, audience participation and neo- psychedelia. It's called _Tubes,_ I guess, because the auditorium is draped with them, the Blue Men play them, the recurring video images recall TV's nickname "the tube," and maybe, paradoxically, because _none_ of the paint that figures so extravagantly in the show's critique of modern painting comes in them.

Two main themes, never expressly stated, coexist and interweave. There's the idea that the process of "making art" has become part of the artwork itself, which tends to make the finished work somewhat secondary and somehow immune from criticism (the process is "creative," so the result must be art). And there's the notion of the mute, unsmiling Blue Men as curious aliens (an image enhanced by tight skull caps that make their heads into shiny blue domes and their ears into amorphous bumps), exploring our strange culture.

By now, _Tubes_ has become a cult event that smacks a bit of _The Rocky Horror Show._ Many attendees seem to be recidivists who come primed for participation, choosing seats in the front rows, where plastic ponchos are doled out for splatter protection, calling out comments, gleefully tangling in the strobe-lit tidal wave of toilet paper that flows over the audience in the show's final minutes. The show's three creators -- Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink -- still perform in both the New York and Boston versions, rotating with five other Blue Men, three per night per city.

Here is some of what happens in _Tubes._

Before the show begins, lengths of crepe paper are passed throughout the audience, who all, as if guided by some collective unconscious, tie them around their heads. Words crawl across two electronic signs, giving announcements ("All the toilet paper used in the show is recycled") and greeting spectators by name ("Hello, Joe Smith, you've just exceeded your credit card limit").

One of the Blue Men tosses paint-filled gumballs across the stage into the mouth of another, who spits them out onto a canvas, which he proudly displays. Another catches literally dozens of marshmallows in his mouth, finally extruding them onto a plate, forming a vaguely phallic "sculpture" on which he immediately slaps a $4,000 price tag.

A pair of latecomers are caught in the glare of a spotlight by a video camera, their images projected on the huge screen at the back of the stage, while over the sound system an operatic tenor shrieks, "You're laaaate!"

A young woman is plucked from the audience to help the Blue Men figure out how to get Twinkies out of the cellophane wrapping, and then to join them in a junk-food banquet that ends with explosions of Twinkie puke gushing from their chests. Another audience member is strung up by his heels, daubed with paint, and bounced against a canvas to create another instant "artwork."

Turning to art criticism, the Blue Men contemplate a dried fish on a canvas, their thoughts shown on electronic signs above their heads. The "thought balloon" of the first is full of critic- babble about the instantiation of meaning and the fishness of the fish. The second, weary of intellectual doubletalk, longs for genuine human communication and emotional openness. The third looks askance at each of them in turn and thinks, "Asshole."

With the band playing Jefferson Airplane's acid-rock anthem "White Rabbit," three electronic signs scroll simultaneously, each with a different text -- one for those who know the song (who are invited to sing along), one for those who don't (who are given a sardonic commentary on the hippie era), and one for those in neither category (that's what it says).

The Blue Men are all accomplished percussionists as well as skilled physical comics. They team-play a homemade instrument constructed of a convolution of plastic tubes and, at the beginning and end, three drums whose heads hold pools of paint that erupt in fountains of colored spray when struck.

_Tubes_ is visually dazzling, wildly inventive, often hilarious, and occasionally deafening. If its satirical targets are easy and obvious, the barbs are witty, deftly executed, and never belabored (well, except maybe for the Twinkie puke). The show works so well because it's so straight-faced. Unlike the high and low culture it pillories, it neither takes itself seriously nor laughs at its own jokes. It doesn't pretend to be a work of art, but its very lack of pretense helps it become one.

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