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Theater Review: "Arias With a Twist" at Woolly Mammoth

Drag performer Joey Arias and puppeteer Basil Twist collaborate in this mind-twistingly entertaining, enjoyably surreal show.

Joey Arias in Arias with a Twist. Photograph by Steven Menendez.

The following description should convince you that Arias with a Twist, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through May 6 as part of a mini festival of New York puppetmaster Basil Twist‘s work, is not a puppet show for kiddies, but a ribald, phantasmagoric, R-rated romp. Manhattan drag star Joey Arias–in a cinched corset-bustier, S&M-style black-strap bikini, fishnet thigh-highs, heavy bangs, false eyelashes and a ponytail–is abducted by a space ship and “probed” by aliens with glowing eyes. She’s hurtled back to Earth and lands in an Eden-like jungle, where she ingests a phallic mushroom (“holy shitake!”) and sets off on a psychedelic joy ride, briefly morphing into a multi-armed Hindu goddess. She’s then fondled by a purple satin octopus and its many arms, while an ice-cream cone and a cute little tea pot float by. Arias proceeds down to Hell, where she communes in a sexual way with well-endowed devils. Hell eventually explodes and sends her back up. She finds herself alone again, singing “All By Myself” in a smokey alto reminiscent of her idol Billie Holiday.

There. That should give you an idea. Not for kids.

Arias with a Twist, a collaboration between the two artists, is funny, and when it isn’t funny it’s poignant, and when it is neither funny nor poignant it is merely amazing. Twist’s puppetry goes far beyond characters made of cloth, wood and foam. He has conjured whole worlds to envelop and showcase Arias’s over-the-top stage persona. In those worlds of outerspace, Eden, Hell and beyond are the puppets, of course, but also a glowing space ship that floats out over the audience, the aforementioned aliens, devils, octopus, ice-cream cone, and tea pot, and later on, a stage-filling Manhattan skyscape stradled by giant versions of Arias’s gams. This all leads, somehow, to a splashy Busby Berkeley-style production number with chorus girls and Arias high-kicking in mirrors. She also tap dances, but it would be churlish to reveal how.

What seem like a million different elements weave and waft through the Twistian universe in which Arias plays her outrageous, lewd, singing self. You rarely even glimpse the six black-clad puppeteers (Chris De Ville, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt A. Leabo, Jamie Moore, David Lloyd Olson, and Amanda Villalobos) who make it happen all around her.

Friends and cohorts since their pre-millennium days in New York’s underground art scene, Arias and Twist decided to collaborate on a show in 2008 and Arias with a Twist is the result. They got help from couturier Manfred Thierry Mugler, who designed the naughty costumes and is also listed as an “artistic advisor.” The show debuted in New York and has been expanded over the years. Arias with a Twist is not for all grown-up tastes, either, but it happens to be a perfect match for Woolly, whose regular audiences aren’t likely to be shocked by anything. For those who may prefer fewer to no penile references at all in their theatergoing, however, this may not be the show for them.

So, back to Arias blasting out of Hell: She briefly disappears. Rows of miniature skyscrapers gradually fill the stage and ever larger puppet avatars of Arias tromp through it before the performer herself reappears, huge against the model buildings and gallumphing through them with reverberating footsteps like King Kong­–only in a leather bikini. An old-style newsreel announces that Joey Arias will have her Broadway debut as a solo performer.

Cue the puppet musicians in tails whom we briefly glimpse at the start of the show. They are The Dream Music Orchestra, comprised of four wooden marionettes created for Twist’s grandfather, orchestra leader Griff Williams. There’s a trumpet player, a pianist, a standing bass player and a drummer, each in his own lighted box, all there to accompany La Arias in her debut. She introduces them all and tells us she’s engaged to the trumpeter, “Toots.”

True to her audacious persona, Arias engages directly with the audience a couple of times at the end of the evening, so if you’re in the front row, you might be asked if you’re feeling “sexual” tonight. If you hesitate and you’re a guy, you may be dragged onstage and bawdily flirted with. It’s all part of the ambience. And, if you’re not careful, you’ll see beyond all the rude gags into the wealth of invention and dreaminess behind Arias with a Twist, in which grown-ups with grown-up desires get to play and imagine absolutely anything at all, and have it come to life–safely–on a stage.

Arias with a Twist is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street, NW through May 6. Tickets ($45 – $72.50) are available at Woolly Mammoth’s website.