January 25, 1991

3 Clowns With a Message On Ritual, Art and Comedy


One of the most joyous moments in "Tubes," the delightfully circusy performance piece at La Mama, comes when its three creators, known as the Blue Man Group, enact a percussion-and-paint ritual that tickles one's primal fantasies of making noise and splatter.

Standing side by side in front of matching kettledrums, the trio of unsmiling clowns, their faces and necks painted blue, begin tapping out a martial drum roll while pouring red, yellow and blue paint onto their instruments. Drumming, they kick up multicolored fountains of spray that rhythmically rise and fall. Plunging canvases into the gaudy spindrift, they then create instant "action" paintings.

"Tubes" is one of messiest performance pieces ever staged in a New York City theater, and also one of the most delightful, recalling the euphoric high jinks of Penn and Teller and the Kipper Kids, with percussion added. Before the performance, those in the front rows are handed sheets of plastic wrap to protect them from gooey substances that will be squirted from nozzles attached to the trio's Tin Man-style armor. Later, a volunteer is taken backstage, and a video screen shows him being swabbed with black paint, suspended upside down on a rope and swung gently against a canvas.

"Tubes" takes its title from the show's environment of hollow rubber tubes draped all around the theater with their ends dangling within reach of the audience. Those who put their ears to the tubes will hear all sorts of weird squawks and jabber. The show culminates with a disco bacchanalia in which the tubes begin to gyrate as a strobe light flashes, and the performers wade into the audience and dance on the tables while the theater fills with white streamers. Breaking Down a Wall

The deliriously antic blend of music, painting and clowning has its semi-serious side. In an amusing spoof of art criticism, the three performers, who never speak, pose as a panel of experts sharing their thoughts about a stuffed fish held in front of a canvas. Those thoughts, alternately pretentious and irreverently funny, are paraded in red dotted letters across electric signs attached to their heads.

The Blue Man Group was formed three years ago by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, three caterers for Glorious Foods in Manhattan. Mr. Goldman had a background in computers. Mr. Stanton had studied acting and liked to build things. And Mr. Wink, a student of African and Latin drumming, had played with several post-punk rock bands.

"When we first got together, we didn't know what we wanted to do except find a style that had passion and that would break down the wall between performer and audience," Mr. Wink said the other day. "Gradually, we developed this character named Blueman, whom we think of as a single entity, but in three parts. Though he's extremely human, he also has strict limitations. He can't speak or move his arms, but he's got a passionate interest in color."

The group's first public performance, "Funeral for the 80's," was a happening staged two years before the decade actually ended, in Central Park opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they paraded with a coffin. Several months later, they performed "Club Nowhere" on the sidewalk opposite the Copacabana on East 60th Street. With a velveteen rope supplied by Glorious Foods as their only prop, they set up a club on the street and offered free memberships to the people waiting in line at the Copa. People liked the idea and began dancing on the sidewalk, even though there was no music. The group went on to perform in downtown clubs like King Tut's Wah Wah Hut and Dixon Place and at spaces like the Performing Garage and Performance Space 122. A New Vaudeville

The range of skills the trio has developed is quite remarkable. All three members are accomplished percussionists who are augmented in "Tubes" by two drummers, Larry Heinemann and Ian Pai. They also play semi-improvised pieces in African-Latin style on their own homemade wooden, vibraphonelike instruments. One of their funniest skits involves tossing and catching objects in their mouths. They also constructed the rotating tubes from tubing donated by Materials for the Arts and motors they found in junkyards.

A particular inspiration has been the work of the popular New Vaudeville magicians Penn and Teller.

"I love the way they turn themselves in as they go," Mr. Wink said. "They'll do a trick and show you what they did, so that the piece is not about pretending to have supernatural powers, but about the sociological phenomenon of huckstering." Rock as Tribal Ritual

A similar feeling of collaborating with the audience, rather than showing off for it, goes to the core of the Blue Man Group's vision and links it with what Mr. Wink described as "rock-and-roll utopianism."

"At certain moments in its history, rock-and-roll has become a tribal thing," Mr. Wink explained. "A lot of the impetus for Blueman came out of our dissatisfaction with being audience members at rock shows where we felt we were being kept at a distance, when punk and new-wave rock were supposed to give people the freedom to reinvent themselves. We're not geniuses, but we wanted to create something that we did feel was happening, something that had a little passion. One of the first things we discussed when we sat down together was how to form a new tribe."

La Mama is at 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan. Performances this weekend are tonight and tomorrow at 10, and tickets are $12. The engagement has just been extended through Feb. 9. Shows will be Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 P.M. Reservations: (212) 475-7710.