Try to imagine the Blue Man Group without their makeup. First, of course, they'd have to change their name. Second, they wouldn't be nearly as funny. That layer of cobalt greasepaint creates enough distance between "them" and us to allow us to see truth.
Truth?!? What's that got to do with it? This is comedy. This is about three guys on stage who splatter paint everywhere, who spew food through stomach tubes, who blanket audiences in toilet paper. Who cares about truth?
Well, comedy is always about truth. How many times have you listened to a comedian and, through the laughing and snorting, you tell your friends, “That’s so true!” Every comedian has complete license to tell the truth, especially if they’re wearing some kind of mask.
Clowns have always had that license. Slap on makeup to make yourself otherworldly enough, and you can run riot. It's that mask, that change of face from literally human to figuratively human, that gives you freedoms we literal humans don't give ourselves.
And we, that audience of literal humans, do give our masked entertainers a lot of license. Kalen Allmandinger, a performer with Blue Man Group, said that their blue faces become tranquil blue canvases for the audience. The blue men of Blue Man Group become the walls of our own caves that we blanket with the graffiti of our own imagination.
Peter Meineck, artistic director of Aquila Theater, was here yesterday in his other guise, that of associate professor of classics at New York University. He presented a lecture to a UNM class on the theater of Dionysus. He talked extensively about masks.
He made the case that theater performed with masks can be quite compelling because we write onto a mask what we ourselves want to see, that often we put our own face on the mask, figuratively speaking, so it is we who are experiencing the situations depicted on stage. At the very least, we see the face of that mask staring directly at us as the character does unspeakable or shameless acts. We end up having a deeply personal relationship with the mask and, by extension, with the performance.
Meineck also noted that "when we look at a [human] face, we look intently at the mouth and the eyes to try to figure out emotion.” He also said that the eyes and mouth are the areas of a mask that should be empty. Anyone who's shopped for a Halloween costume knows this.
But the mask of the blue men counters that idea. (So do Greek theater masks, by the way.) As Allmandinger notes, "Really, our eyes are the only piece of our bodies that aren’t covered up. Everything’s focused in on the eyes. That’s where the truth and specificity shine through." (See? Again with the truth.)
What really pops out of the Blue Man Group makeup are the whites of the eyes, called the sclera. Meineck noted that the sclera makes human eyes very visible, an oddity among mammals, which helps us with our connections to one another.
Since the faces of the Blue Man Group are masks with eyes that pop, we really connect with them. We write on them what we want, and what we end up with is something funnier than we ever could have imagined if those three guys performed without their blue greasepaint masks. And that's the truth.
Terry S. Davis