Effigies and Aliens Cavort in a Cross-Dressing Wonderland
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: June 19, 2008
Eat your heart out, Madonna. The chanteuses who play Madison Square Garden and football stadiums have never experienced the imaginative heights of spectacle with which Basil Twist surrounds Joey Arias in "Arias With a Twist," which opened Wednesday night at the newly renovated Here Arts Center.
Mr. Twist is the inspired puppet master who, a decade ago, turned wet pieces of cloth into a Folies BergÃ¨re-style corps de ballet in his head-tripping interpretation of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," set in a giant aquarium. Now he returns to the scene of that career-making triumph, the Dorothy B. Williams Theater, to ply his surreal magic on the venerable downtown drag show.
Mr. Arias, a cross-dressing vocalist notable for the weight of his false eyelashes and his gift for replicating the raspy wail of Billie Holiday, returns to New York after doing time in Las Vegas as a mistress of ceremonies for the racy Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. And while the stage he commands at Here is, in size, but a fraction of the one he played at the New York New York hotel, it cannot be said that he has hit the small time.
That's because Mr. Twist, along with an accomplished technical team, has whipped up a vast enchanted troupe of effigies "” from a marionette supper-club combo to a life-size chorus line of plump, plumed dancers "” to back up Mr. Arias's song stylings. Well, perhaps back up is not quite the way to put it, since Mr. Twist's creations have a way of stealing the spotlight, even when they're in the shadows.
This show even has a spotlight that steals the spotlight, a roving disc of illumination that shrinks and expands capriciously, a diva unto itself, before the curtain goes up. (Ayumu Saegusa did the lighting.) There are, in fact, an assortment of curtains, which part and fall and drop teasingly, like Salome's veils.
Finally they uncover Mr. Arias, looking like the vintage pin-up model Bettie Page in dominatrix mode, strapped to a giant, rotating silver wheel and being probed by ghostly aliens. The script, devised by Mr. Arias and Mr. Twist, uses this very close encounter as a dropping-off point for a series of earthly, and often earthy, adventures.
These include Mr. Arias tumbling through space and landing in a glorious Edenic rain forest; eating a magic mushroom that takes him straight to hell; stalking Manhattan as a 50-foot woman; and, at last, arriving at a cozy little boÃ®te to sing soulfully before being propelled into the dizzying realm of a Busby Berkeley fantasy number.
The apparitions that show up in these locales are often delightful (the blissful marionette jazz ensemble) and sometimes sinister (the giant slithering serpent in the rainforest). Flowers blossom before your eyes; white-gloved hands, ice cream cones and cymbal-banging monkeys float through the air; and what looks like the entire island of Manhattan materializes as a sky-scraping Oz.
Did I mention the rotating wedding cake? And how about those giant dancing devil puppets, which move like Las Vegas chorus boys? Their outsized assets include flailing phalluses, a reminder that though children might find much to revel in here, this is definitely not a kiddie show.
Mr. Arias's dialogue, delivered in a deadpan mix of little-girl breathlessness and big-girl worldliness, will sound familiar to anyone who's seen a New York drag show during the last few decades. ("I didn't even get his phone number," Mr. Arias sighs after dancing with the devil.) And of course he sings, with varying effectiveness, pop standards ("All by Myself"), acid rock ("Kashmir"), a charming original composition by Alex Gifford ("Jungle of Eden") and, most memorably, the Holiday standard "You've Changed."
As an actor Mr. Arias is not a seamless illusionist. We're always aware of the big lug beneath the Joan Crawford maquillage and Thierry Mugler corsets. But in a way, this makes him the perfect escort into Mr. Twist's wonderland.
Mr. Arias registers as a figure of solid human flesh aching to be transported into a world of celluloid dreams. Costumes and makeup can only take a fellow so far. That's where Mr. Twist comes in, with a fluid mise-en-scÃ¨ne that allows Mr. Arias "” and, vicariously, you and me "” to go the distance, all the way over the rainbow.
ARIAS WITH A TWIST
Created by Joey Arias and Basil Twist; directed by Mr. Twist; lighting by Ayumu Saegusa; sound by Greg Duffin; video design by Daniel Brodie; costume concepts by Thierry Mugler, designed by Chris March; musical arrangements and production by Eliot Douglass and Jean Houle Francoise; songs by Alex Gifford; production stage manager, Neelam Vaswani; produced by Barbara Busackino. Presented by Here's Dream Music Puppetry Program and Tandem Otter Productions in association with Johnnie Moore. At the Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, at Dominick Street, South Village; (212) 352-3101. Through July 13. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.
WITH: Joey Arias, Oliver Dalzell, Randy Ginsburg, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt Leabo, Jessica Scott and Lindsay Abromaitis Smith.