The Washington Post

Puppeteer and drag artist in tune in ‘Arias With a Twist’

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.)

The synchronization of the brains of star Joey Arias, above, and director Basil Twist can create hilarious moments. (Steven Menendez/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

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.

Arias With a Twist

by Joey Arias and Basil Twist. Directed by Twist. Production supervisor, Stan Pressner; costumes, Manfred Thierry Mugler; original songs, Alex Gifford;
musical arrangements, Eliot Douglass and Jean Houle Francoise; lighting, Ayumu Saegusa; sound, Greg Duffin; projections, Daniel Brodie; puppet build captain, Millie Taylor.
About 90 minutes. Through May 6
at Woolly Mammoth Theatre,
641 D St. NW. Visit or call 202-393-3939.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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