ARIAS WITH A TWIST * Starring Joey Arias * Directed and designed by Basil Twist * HERE Center for the Arts, New York City, through December 31. 

Ever wish you’d been around the East Village in the late 1970s when dearly departed queer theater icons like Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith put on hours-long midnight shows that mashed together pop art, drag-club culture, and experimental theater? If so, you have a golden opportunity in Arias with a Twist, a collaboration between two downtown legends: genderfuck chanteuse Joey Arias and puppet-theater wizard Basil Twist. 

Arias, veteran of Wigstock and Club 57, is fresh from five years as maitresse of ceremonies for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas burlesque show Zumanity. Twist, who’s designed and manipulated puppets for avant-garde maestros like Lee Breuer and Julie Taymor, returns to the scene of his long-running breakthrough extravaganza Symphonie Fantastique, an inventive underwater ballet to the Berlioz music performed in a 500-gallon tank by swirling masses of flashlights, shiny objects, fabric, and non-human stick figures. What they’ve cooked up together is both entirely unholy and a lot of fun. Imagine Kiki and Herb’s version of Broadway’s The Little Mermaid, if you dare.

From the moment it begins, you feel like you’re watching your friendly neighborhood magic-show pagan ritual cabaret act put on by kids in the family garage. Very sophisticated kids. In drag. On drugs. Twist has a genius for making inanimate objects dance, so the first three numbers spotlight key elements of his brand of puppet theater: several layers of curtains, a pint-sized quartet of marionette musicians, and mysterious objects with blinking lights moving around in the dark. Only then does the diva entrance occur. To thundering Led Zeppelin chords, Joey Arias appears, strapped into a spinning rack, peered at and poked by vacant-eyed cartoon aliens. Arias himself looks like an inflatable fuck-me doll in dominatrix gear with Elvira wig and monster-movie makeup – you can’t tell where his real body stops and the enhancements begin. Whether speaking or singing into a microphone disguised as a horsehair flogger, his voice becomes a library of special effects, both channeling and sending up Billie Holiday by way of Harvey Fierstein and/or Yma Sumac.

The pile-up of genres never quits. After the sci-fi alien abduction scene, a puppet version of Joey falls to earth and lands in a Garden of Eden suspiciously lacking in innocence. Biting into a red-sequined mushroom (“Holy shittake!”) sends Joey on an extended psychedelic trip through a Beatles medley (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”/”Within You, Without You”) surrounded by beautiful lotus blossoms and then a descent to a hellish encounter with some sexy devils (fantastic constructions as good as anything you’ll see in The Lion King). 

The puppet-Joey frolics through a model-sized New York City skyline, then the human-Joey shows up towering over the Chrysler Building like King Kong, smashing around in platform stilettos and snacking on subway car passengers. Then suddenly, we’re in a nightclub and Joey’s in cocktail attire crooning jazz standards. Then there’s a tap-dancing Rockettes number leading into a Busby Berkley finale with dancing legs sticking out of a spinning cake multiplied to eternity by mirrors. Give up trying to follow the plot – it’s not that kind of show. 

By the way, all this is taking place on a stage about the size of an SUV with the farthest seats six rows away from Arias’ lascivious eyelashes. No wonder the show has been packed night after night for months. Broadway’s a little dim in the star-power department at the moment, unless you fancy sitting through Arthur Miller’s All My Sons to see Katie Holmes in her dramatic debut. At the intimate spectacle that is Arias with a Twist, you really feel like you’re in the presence of something that’s not happening anywhere else on earth.

The Advocate, December 2, 2008