Arias with a Twist at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is a playful (and very adult!) romp through the naughtier places of the psyche.
Talented performer Joey Arias endures alien abductors with large probes, giant snakes and venus flytraps, purgatorial orgies. Arias becomes a Godzilla-like drag queen tromping the streets of New York City; takes a zero-gravity fall through Time and Space before closing, or is it opening?, in an upscale Manhattan jazz club, for a classy croon of a drag show backed by The Dream Music Orchestra.
What do all of these adventures have in common? They all come from the crazy imagination of Basil (rhymes with “razzle” and “dazzle”) Twist.
Twist, originally from San Francisco, found his start in puppetry from his mother, who was a puppeteer. “She was working with other moms and I was really impressed,” says Twist. “Seeing things up close was great.” “Then,” he adds, “there was Bob Hartman, a one-man street performer down by Fisherman’s Wharf, in a little velvet booth. He did mostly hand and rod work, along with some shadow puppets at night. Hilarious sketches. I always wanted to go see him because he was a REAL puppeteer.”
Fast-forward to 2008 in New York, where Twist had become one of the most celebrated puppet artists in the United States. He was an artistic collaborator at HERE Arts Space in which a newly renovated theatre, named after his grandmother, Dorothy B. Williams, was about to open. When he was invited to create a show, he called long-time friend and musical force, Joey Arias, and invited him to embark on a project that would, between the two artists, soon be “formed in a blaze of sudden inspiration and possibility.” Thus was born the sparkling Arias with a Twist.
Arias is a unique piece that quickly glides through a series of wildly obtuse, yet stunningly realized dramatizations, using strategically placed scrims and curtains, video projections of stars, fireworks and goldfish, along with many different types of puppetry, including but by no means limited to marionettes (string puppets), hand and rod styles. The six puppeteers were clad almost completely in black velour – the “blackest” of non-reflective clothing for stage puppetry; the only live human skin you will see is that of Mr. Arias. The puppeteers move their bodies, as all professional puppeteers should do, just shy of imperceptibly, using elements of Black Theatre puppetry by staying out of the light. They expertly and silently operate all those effects – puppet birds, comets, stars, reptiles, fungus, chorus girls, gorgeous comic book-like cityscapes, even a flying saucer that levitates over the audience. They become human marionettes, integrating themselves around the body of Mr. Arias with the greatest of coordination. These gifted artists of object and visual deception are also responsible for the ultra-fast scene shifts. My favorite puppetry part was the tableau with the octopus tentacles. . or was it the twirling cake of legs?
At one point I asked myself, “what in the world is happening here?” but swiftly realized that this “world” needed no explanation because it existed in a different space of its own device full of visual and aural pleasures. The songs, including one by Mr. Arias himself, carefully chosen from such notable rock and jazz artists of the last century as Led Zepplin, The Beatles and Annie Ross, carry the mile markers of the show in their lyrics. They will have your head bobbing, your feet tapping and your chair pulsing.
Arias is a show within a show, presenting the struggles that performing artists might internally experience before the curtain rises. There are moments of bright joy and sudden loneliness, but none can be prone to dwelling on themselves for very long because there is still work to be done. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue moving forward to their destiny.
To recommend this production would be an understatement. Let’s just say, no psychedelic drugs are necessary before coming. You will feel plenty “high” while watching the show. And Woolly Mammoth Theatre is the ideal space for it. Just get comfortable, let go, and let in your crazy.
– Note: The four 4 string-puppets from The Dream Music Orchestra are an exquisitely hand-carved group of marionette likenesses representing famous band leaders from the 30’s and 40’s. They were created for Twist’s grandfather, big band leader Griff Williams, over 80 years ago. The jazz puppet pianist is his likeness.
Arias with a Twist
Created by Joey Arias and Basil Twist
Directed by Basil Twist
Produced by Woolly Mammoth
Reviewed by Eric Brooks
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Eric Brooks is a local puppeteer and musician. He is the producer of a puppetry showcase called The Playhouse Puppetry Slam! in Glen Echo, MD. The next one will be on April 28th. For more information, go to www.puppetryslam.com.
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