Arias with a Twist
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
June 14, 2008
What do you do with a downtown icon?
Many years ago, Eddie Murphy did a standup routine about Elvis Presley in which he commented that the young Elvis was considered so hot, they let him do whatever he wanted. Put him in movies, he'd sing his lines. He gained a little weight? His voice was so good, women went nuts anyway. Icons like Elvis go beyond logic and the ideas we have about theatre, film, music, etc. Their images become so entrenched in our imaginations, they overwhelm whatever surroundings they happen to inhabit. No one ever went to the movies to see Elvis convincingly portray a racecar driver. They went to see Elvis sing, overcome obstacles, get the girl, and win the race. We don't want to see him win because he's created a sympathetic character. We want to see him win because he's Elvis. We want to see him succeed. Icons embody the best and most talented parts of our selves. The people behind those images may live in the shady gray areas of life but their images remain solidly ensconced in a very specific light.
I'm not very familiar with the work of Joey Arias, well-known drag diva and star of Arias with a Twist—his collaboration with the superb and influential puppeteer Basil Twist, now playing at the newly renovated Here Arts Center—but judging from word-of-mouth and the audience reaction before the lights went up, he seems to occupy the same rarified air in the downtown arts scene as the jump-suited icon did on the global stage. The audience responded to everything—his singing, his attitude, his direct flirtations—with laughter or applause, even when it wasn't quite clear what was happening, which, to be honest, was often.
Fresh off a successful run as the emcee "Mistress of Seduction" in the Las Vegas production of Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, Arias tells the story of his return to New York City in Arias With A Twist. It begins in grand fashion with the opening of four curtains: the first, plush and red; the second, silver and silky; the third patterned like the coat of a leopard; and the last dark as night. The reveal is both a joke and preparation, like peeling the skin off a banana with the intent of laying it on the ground for someone to slip on. The world it reveals is elegant—there is a beautifully presented four-piece, tuxedoed marionette orchestra—and kind of trippy, with images of floating stars projected onto a screen and small, multi-colored lights moving across the stage, manipulated by the show's team of puppeteers.
Arias appears soon thereafter, bound in a single-ringed gimbal aboard a UFO. He is surrounded by aliens straight out of Roswell, who send his literal and then his puppet self hurtling through space. Arias lands with a scream and a thud in the middle of a jungle. While unfamiliar with the territory—"Civilization has failed us," he observes, assessing his situation—he doesn't seem the least uncomfortable. And why should he be: the terrain is quite accommodating. There's a nice moss-covered rock on which to rest his luxurious body. There's an adorable leather-faced monkey who offers him a cigarette. There's a blossoming flower that presents him a long-haired microphone with which he serenades the audience. He also finds a magic mushroom that, when licked, sends him hurtling through a different kind of space, one in which he sings, signs floating pieces of parchment with a red feather pen, dances with demons and fellates them. And then, on the horizon, the Manhattan skyline appears. This pleases Arias like nothing else. He has finally come home.
I won't spoil the fun by revealing the surprises, but the Manhattan presented in Arias With A Twist is a romantic dreamscape as imagined by someone whose subconscious hates, loves, and can't quite let go of its dangers. Arias returns as a conquering hero to the city he loves—someone who has traveled great distances and performed great deeds—but the majesty of the city still manages to humble and energize him. It's a fine line to straddle, but Arias handles the dangers beautifully.
Does this mean you'll like it? That will depend on your relationship with Arias. Joey Arias is probably not an icon for all tastes. (He should be, but that is an argument for another review.) The puppets and puppeteers are superb; and if nothing else, you should come just to see them and hear the sound of Arias's voice. Twist does a wonderful job of providing Arias the space he needs to perform and surrounding him with a world that keeps him constantly stimulated. There are images, ideas, and moments contained in the show you will not see anywhere else in the five boroughs but the world they create and the action never cohere. If you are familiar with Arias's work, they will probably make sense and deepen your relationship with it. If you aren't, you'll probably want to do some research (there are many clips on YouTube). But if you've never seen him before, you should probably get over to the Here Arts Center and have a look. There isn't anything out there right now quite like it.