‘Arias with a Twist’
Through May 6
641 D Street, NW
While very different, drag and puppetry actually have some things in common. To be good, both require artifice, heaps of imagination and a little magic. In co-creating “Arias with a Twist” (at Woolly Mammoth through May 6) New York drag performer Joey Arias and master puppeteer Basil Twist bring together their respective, formidable talents to create a wild ride.
The 90-minute, psychedelic odyssey kicks off in outer space. When we meet the show’s beleaguered heroine Joey (portrayed by Arias as a mix of dim damsel and hard-boiled party girl), she’s been abducted by aliens. Strapped to a metal wheel, she unconvincingly objects “I’m a virgin,” as the glow-eyed extraterrestrials introduce her to their biggest mechanical probe. From there, Joey, falls to earth and lands in an Eden-like jungle where — “Holy Shitake!” — she gobbles down a sparkly disco mushroom (hallucinogenic, of course), and the most trippy part of her journey ensues.
Twist (the show’s designer and director), lighting designer Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa and projection designer Daniel Brodie surround Joey with outsized flowers, pinwheels, kaleidoscopes, Muppet-like dodo birds, butterflies, disembodied white-gloved hands, and, most impressively, 20-foot-long, purple octopus tentacles. The magic mushrooms experience explodes from mellow to fiery, taking Joey straight to a flame-filled hell where she performs a Vegas-y number (and more) with two muscly, massively endowed backup demons.
Inevitably Joey crashes. From a darkened stage, she awakens alone and weakly asks the audience “What time is it?” before seguing into a torchy rendition of pop hit “All By Myself.” (Throughout the show Arias sings a mixture pop standards and bluesy ballads dotted with low growls and ear-piercing Yma Sumac squeaks.) But like Dorothy, Joey realizes “there’s no place like home,” and for her that means Manhattan.
In no time, our high-heeled star hilariously descends upon Gotham like the 50-foot woman, clomping her way downtown, taking out a few cabs and assorted commuters on the way. Despite a raucous return, she’s welcomed home with open arms: a spinning collage of headlines announces “Joey Arias Returns From Outer Space!” Her triumphant comeback entails a singing engagement at a smart club. Joey flirts with the cute band members (charmingly crafted 80-year-old puppets passed down from Twist’s bandleader grandfather) and naughtily banters with the audience (a real Arias strength). Before the final curtain, she is joined by a chorus of big-legged beauties and ultimately appears half-naked atop a multi-tiered cake in an elaborate number inspired by 1930s Hollywood.
Arias’ bag of tried-and-true tricks (that vintage pinup appeal, the Billie Holiday rasp and those hilarious deadpan double takes) along with Twist’s whimsical, wildly inventive puppetry expand a one gal show into something vast (including a cast of dozens animated by six unseen puppeteers) and delightfully unpredictable.
Manfred Thierry Mugler (the famed French couturier added the “Manfred” when he dramatically transformed into a massive bodybuilder a few years back) dresses Joey in a restricted wardrobe of punishing foundation garment with strategically placed black bands, and later a gorgeous black mermaid gown. The look creates a sort of chic armor; but despite her fierce attire, Joey is vulnerable and amusingly susceptible to all sorts of temptation.
“Arias with a Twist” premiered in New York in 2008. And though the show has been tweaked since then, it’s not without its clunky moments, most notably some serious pacing problems. Still it delivers some spectacle and merrily salutes much from 20th century show biz — Ziegfeld Follies, Busby Berkeley, big bands — but its DNA can be traced specifically to the downtown New York club scene where gay artists Arias and Twist cut their teeth. It’s raunchy, clunky and fun and there’s a “my dad has a barn, let’s put on a show” quality to it only the barn is a night spot in the East Village and the kids are drag queens, budding artists, and a couple of muscle boys (to do the heavy lifting).