Skillful illusions twist and turn - with bawdy strings attached
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2012
The more the star of "Arias With a Twist" exposes his outrageousness, the more he manages to class up the joint.
The joint in question is Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where Joey Arias straps on a whip-length ponytail and thong and, in a voice as husky as a ravenous grizzly bear's, serenades us as only a heavily lacquered man playing a woman can.
"Arias With a Twist" is a collaboration forged by two skillful illusionists, one who strings us along on an exaggerated idea and the other who puts exaggerated ideas on strings. The hyper-resourceful New York puppeteer Basil Twist - whose work is being performed in the District in his first career retrospective - is the director of this rude and delectably cheeky, if choppy, entertainment, the third of the four Twist pieces to be presented at theaters in and just outside the city.
Twist's aesthetic route walks an advantageous parallel course with that of Arias, whose durability as a New York drag and performance artist just about qualifies him for the tag of "timeless." In this 90-minute solo show, Arias is thrust into a slithery, smutty, protean world of a puppet-master's devising, filled with some trademark examples of Twistian charm: among them, four handsomely detailed puppets, members of the Dream Music Orchestra, accessorized as if they'd played backup once upon a time for Billie Holiday, the troubled chanteuse who is an inspiration for Arias.
The show, though, refuses to commit to any single performing tradition, and so it shifts, in demented sideshow style, from sultry jazz club to bawdy bathhouse. The evening begins with the scantily leather-clad star lashed to a gurney, as alien puppets with glowing eyes out of the schlockiest sci-fi flick lower a "probe" that looks suspiciously phallic. (I wouldn't advocate for altered states, but there are cheesier interludes of "Arias With a Twist" that no doubt would have seemed far funnier had I been in one.)
Technical issues sometimes hinder the comedy, especially in terms of sound reproduction: The music has a tendency to drown Arias out, especially in the early going. And the perspective from seats on the ends of Woolly's scalloped rows is not ideal during some Twist illusions, particularly in a kaleidoscopic sequence after Arias lands in a verdant, pulsating jungle and takes a bite of a hallucinogenic mushroom.
At other times, however, the synchronization of Arias's and Twist's comic brains yields delightful results, such as in the singer's delivering a rendition of "All By Myself" as a miniature nighttime cityscape of New York slides into place from the wings. Soon, the stage feels as packed as Midtown Manhattan, and in a sly poke at all those vintage panic-in-the-streets movies, a giant drag queen goes on a rampage, crushing taxicabs and emptying the passengers on a Lexington Avenue subway train into the performer's mouth.
A voracious embrace of feminine caricature is a hallmark of Arias's appeal, which is in most ebullient display when the actor simply raises the volume on a torch song or ballad. His artistry will sustain fans even during the show's more slapdash sequences. (Twist's puppeteers - Chris DeVille, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt Leabo, Jamie Moore, David Lloyd Olsen and Amanda Villalobos - join the headliner onstage at evening's end for a well-deserved curtain call.) This may not be the pinnacle event of the Twist festival, but it does provide its share of crazy highs.
A wild singer's fever dream in 'Arias'
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Apr. 6, 2012
The Washington adventures of Joey Arias began in Adams Morgan, but for the month of April, you'll find the glam performer sprinkling his particular brand of black glitter across town at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
"Arias With a Twist," a drag-queen fever dream that's part of the Basil Twist Festival, will have fans seeing a lot more of Arias - and a lot more skin, thanks to dominatrix-esque costumes designed by Thierry Mugler, who has outfitted the likes of Madonna and Beyonce.
The show is a collaboration between puppeteer Basil Twist and Arias, who dreamed up a glitzy spectacle that imagines Arias as a wayward singer trapped in a surreal universe populated by puppets. (Save for the puppets, one gets the feeling that "Arias With a Twist" could be the autobiography of the performer, who rose from the rough-and-tumble downtown New York arts scene of the 1980s to perform at such places as Carnegie Hall.)
Twist, a friend, approached Arias a few years ago about doing a show together to mark the 2008 reopening of the Here Arts Center in New York's West Village. "I had always wanted to be in Basil's shows," Arias recalls.
When Twist asked Arias what he thought the show should be, Arias replied: "I want to be abducted by aliens, I want to be on an acid trip, and I want to be in a Busby Berkeley film where there's a giant cake and a million girls."
A week later, Arias says, Twist phoned him. He had written what Arias now says "was the floor plan of the show."
So is it everything Arias envisioned? "Definitely," he says. "There's a Busby Berkeley finale with kaleidoscope mirrors - you see me upside down and everything. It's incredible."
The theater is taking advantage of the show's naughty bits with a special show April 13 that will be followed by a "Glamazon Pageant." Area burlesque and vaudeville performers will vie to be crowned while the crowd can hit the cash bar and soak up the scene.