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Don Aucoin | Critic’s Notebook

Speaking volumes onstage, often without words

The Blue Man Group show has run nonstop in Boston since 1995.
The Blue Man Group show has run nonstop in Boston since 1995.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Back in 1991, as Chris Wink and his two cofounders of Blue Man Group began contemplating how their mysterious trio of characters would look and act, they settled on the idea of cobalt-colored faces right away.

Shortly after that, they reached a decision that was nearly as significant: The Blue Men would not say a word.

“Losing language was really helpful,’’ Wink said Monday. “We sort of tripped upon the notion that removing language helped make it more ‘Other,’ and also a little more primal, for lack of a better term.’’

That say-it-without-words ethos has long been shared by another cultural phenomenon, Cirque du Soleil, which last week purchased Blue Man Productions.


In a sign of their influence on other productions, both organizations have acclimated audiences to nonlinear — and sometimes nonverbal — shows that are short on conventional narrative and long on visual razzle-dazzle.

Other music-heavy, dialogue-free productions that have drawn big audiences in theaters include “Stomp,’’ a choreographed blend of movement, slapstick, and percussion, and “Fuerza Bruta,’’ a high-energy combination of techno music and aerial stunts.

Some of the most spellbinding theater productions of recent years in the Boston area have also worked in a nonverbal mode. “Sleep No More,’’ a largely wordless reworking of “Macbeth’’ by the British theater company Punchdrunk, was presented locally by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in 2009 and went on to become a long-running hit in New York. Five years ago, ArtsEmerson presented “69˚ S. (The Shackleton Project),’’ which drove home the harrowing ordeal of the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic by means of 4-foot-high marionettes manipulated by performers who did not speak.

Of course, a crucial part of this corporate marriage between Blue Man Productions and Cirque du Soleil is its international scope. Both companies envision expansion into China, among other places, and both speak a universal language. (In a similar vein, action movies with minimal dialogue do well overseas, especially in China, and thus get a major Hollywood push.) Cirque du Soleil has a vastly larger international presence (18 shows currently being presented worldwide) than Blue Man Group does at this point. Blue Man Productions has five shows in the United States (in New York, where it was founded, as well as Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Boston), plus a world tour and a show in Berlin. The deal with Cirque du Soleil opens the door for audiences in Beijing to have the same experiences as audiences at the Charles Playhouse, where the show has been running nonstop since 1995.


Blue Man Group has proven that performance art, usually associated with the avant-garde, can draw a mass audience.

“People that have created shows that don’t have a traditional narrative have come to us and said ‘We were inspired that you guys were able to succeed without a narrative.’ I think we have encouraged people to do work that is sort of in this hodge-podge category,’’ Wink said in an interview with the Globe.

A production of “Pippin” relied heavily on circus acts.
A production of “Pippin” relied heavily on circus acts. Terry Shapiro/File

Over more than 10,000 performances in the past 22 years, Blue Man Group has gotten spectators comfortable with the idea of wordless performers. At Sunday’s show at the Charles Playhouse, there were some prerecorded voice-overs and projected text, but at no point did the Blue Men themselves speak. Instead, they expressed themselves by means of ferocious percussion on PVC pipes, physical comedy, and facial expressions that ranged from impassivity to vague consternation.


By increasing the demands on spectators, such shows can be seen as helping to foster a growing sophistication on the part of the audience. They draw theatergoers into the act of creation, not just by incorporating spectators into the onstage action, which Blue Man Group does, but by trusting them to connect the dots when it comes to theme and message rather than having to spell it out.

Sunday’s audience chuckled knowingly at sketches that amounted to a cautionary tale about excessive dependence on technology, including one in which the Blue Men grew increasingly bewildered by the fast-changing array of options provided by three obelisk-sized smartphones.

As for Cirque du Soleil, the spillover effect of its stylized, cutting-edge circus arts can be seen in the increasing number of circus-infused productions that pop up onstage at such places as the Paramount Center or the Wang Theatre (even though Cirque itself presents most of its shows in arenas or tents).

ArtsEmerson, one of the most prominent presenting organizations in the city, opened last season with two consecutive circus productions and will kick off its 2017/2018 season in September at the Cutler Majestic Theatre with the US premiere of “Reversible,’’ by the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main.

The 2013 production of “Pippin’’ by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, which went on to Broadway and won a Tony Award for best revival of a musical, relied heavily on such circus tricks as acrobatics, sword-juggling, unicycling, and hoop-balancing, choreographed by Gypsy Snider, a cofounder of Les 7 Doigts de la Main. A year earlier, ART artistic director Diane Paulus, who won a Tony for directing “Pippin,’’ directed a Cirque du Soleil production titled “Amaluna.’’


For theater, which always struggles to attract young people, shows like Blue Man Group can serve as a curtain-raiser for new audiences. Jonathan Screnci, the resident general manager of Blue Man Group Boston, said Monday that it’s not uncommon for spectators at the local production to offer such comments as “I don’t usually go to theater. I’m not into it.’’

By this point, the show has been running for so long at the Charles Playhouse that people who saw Blue Man Group on their first date are now bringing their children. “It always seems like there’s a new audience coming to the show,’’ said Screnci.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.