PUPPETS + DRAG QUEEN = THE BEST SHOW IN THE WORLD
by John Topping
published August 5, 2008
Arias with a Twist
now playing Off Broadway at
HERE Arts Center
extended through December 31
Basil Twist can be called many things: a theatrical wunderkind, an artist, a genius. But officially,
his title is Puppeteer. Well, also co-creator and director of Arias With a Twist, his
amazingly beautiful collaboration with the hysterically funny and talented drag queen Joey Arias that was recently given its second extension,
this time through December 31. Yes, that’s right, it’s a drag show with puppets. What does such a proposition conjure up in your mind? Howdy
Doody doing a duet with a lip-synching Liza impersonator? You’re getting cold. The Cookie Monster having an affair with Edna Turnblad?
Colder. Kukla, Fran and Ollie? No! Fran was not a drag queen, she was a real woman.
Okay, I’ll give you some hints. If you’ve ever seen a drag queen perform on stage,
you’re probably not too far off the mark in that respect. Joey Arias wears a costume of a
woman’s body wearing a sort of black bikini with just a hint of dominatrix. But he doesn’t
lip-synch; with a few exceptions for technical reasons, you’re hearing him sing live right in
front of you. And although once in a while he’ll go for a note that he doesn’t quite hit, he
nonetheless has a rather amazing voice, able to take on many styles and nuances (from Led Zeppelin to torch songs) as well as an occasional
freaky pitch several octaves high, just before it would enter “Only Dogs Can Hear This” territory. And make no mistake, the humor is as campy as Charles Pierce, Charles Busch, Charles Ludlam or even any
of the non-Charles DQs.
It’s the puppetry that’s a little harder to describe, and it's what raises the evening from merely campy fun to campy fun as high
art. Basil Twist had already started pushing the boundaries with his Symphonie
Fantastique at the very same space at HERE Arts Center in the late 1990s, an abstract puppet show that was done entirely in a tank of
water. This is comparatively more traditional puppetry, including human figures being
manipulated with strings from above. But by no means is it confined to the string
variety. To officially be deemed puppetry, it merely requires that something inanimate be
brought to life by human agency. This encompasses everything from a spotlight at the beginning
of the show – seriously, how often are you delighted by a spotlight? – to, sometimes, the
entire set of a particular section, as in a number celebrating New York wherein the skyline becomes a moving character. And everything in-between. And then some. And then some more.
Now let me make sure I’m not misleading you. This is not the puppet equivalent of CGI animation, where the figures are so realistic that all the magic is
drained from them. There’s never any question that what you’re seeing are puppets. You see the strings, you see the poles, you catch glimpses of the puppeteers dressed head to toe in
black. But it’s more than a puppet show and it’s more than a drag show. It is an explosion of imagination, doled out in gigantic portions of fun. It follows a psychedelically surreal story from Arias being kidnapped by space aliens to landing in a
strange jungle to returning to his beloved New York (Arias recently finished a 6-year stint in Cirque de Soliel’s Las Vegas sensual
extravaganza Zumanity). With the intermittent
assistance of screen projections, it’s a constantly dazzling and constantly hilarious experience of theatrical innovation and
How good is it? Let’s
see. The best show I’ve seen this year?
Yes. The best show I’ve ever seen in my life?
Maybe. Among the 10 best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had? Definitely. Technically, it’s Off Off Broadway – the theater is
so tiny that it seems as if we have been scaled down to the size of the puppets ourselves – but it is better than any overpriced and
underdeveloped musical extravaganza you will see on Broadway. There is a surprising scarcity of
press photos available, and the ones I’ve seen don’t do it anything approaching justice. Like the
Grand Canyon or a painting by Van Gogh, you really have to be right there in front of it to fully appreciate it. It’s living and breathing theater at its best, and what theater is all about.
Are there any reasons to not go? Yes. It is an adult show. Anyone who hasn’t yet hit puberty
should stay away. And Joey Arias likes his humor raunchy. If sexual innuendo and abundant phallic imagery is a problem for you, then this could either be a good
opportunity for you to get over it, or it might permanently secure your spot in Hell. And the
sensibility is as gay as the day is long, so unrepentant homophobes take heed. Otherwise, if
you pass the aforementioned caveats, and if you live in New York or will be visiting between now and December 31, it is not merely a good
idea to go. You must.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com
read Kestryl Lowrey's review of Arias With A Twist