Cabaret, drag, and performance artist, Joey Arias is a potent experience all by himself. Add a Twist—that’s master puppeteer Basil Twist—to the mix and you get the heady enchantment that is Arias with a Twist. Arias and Twist’s striking collaboration is now playing on the Lower East Side at the Abrons Arts Center, in a nearly century-old theater, the original venue of the Neighborhood Playhouse. It seems fitting that the delightfully zany, visually jaw-dropping, ribald fantasy has berthed at the theater that, in the 1920s, was home to the popular vaudeville spoof, The Grand Street Follies. The current grand folly, Arias with a Twist (playing through October 16) is a series of tableaus, sketches, songs, and theatrical effects strung together to showcase the unique talents of its star and designer.
Arias with a Twist Deluxe, as it is now billed, is a return engagement of the show that became a cult favorite during its eight-month-long run at Soho’s HERE theater in 2008, scaled up to fit into a larger stage. Enhanced with a couple of new songs and more elaborate video effects, it still retains the joyously scrappy quality of the original, and continues to surprise and delight with its theatrical magic. Arias, dressed in costumes by Thierry Mugler, holds his own amid Twist’s stage creations, which are ably manipulated by a near invisible team of six puppeteers. The very loose plot has the sexually polymorphous character Joey abducted by aliens, duly probed and then dropped back into a lush jungle on this planet; after a mushroom-induced side trip to Hell, a larger-than-life Joey returns to Manhattan to perform in a retro nightclub accompanied by a four-piece puppet orchestra; the act comes complete with a chorus line and a Busby Berkley-inspired finale.
Arias was barely out of his teens when he arrived in New York from Los Angeles in 1976. He started attracting attention with his first job—at the trendy Italian designer boutique Fiorucci, where the window displays often featured sales people giving live performances. He associated with Klaus Sperber, the alternative countertenor better known as Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson, Debbie Harry, and others, quickly becoming a well-known fixture of the New York downtown club scene. Along the way, he developed a cabaret act around his uncanny talent for channeling the particular vocal style of legendary jazz singer Billie Holliday. Twist, originally from San Francisco, is the son and grandson of puppeteers. He established himself in New York as one of the prime masters in the field in 1998, with his whimsical Symphonie Fantastique, a magical theatrical experience created underwater with pieces of fabric and strategic lighting. He has since designed and directed visual effects for both theater and opera, including work on Broadway for The Addams Family and The Pee Wee Herman Show. The talented duo recently talked to us about Arias with a Twist.
How did this show come about?
Joey Arias: It was in 2008 and I had returned to New York after six years in Las Vegas [playing the Mistress of Seduction in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity] and Basil asked me if I was interested in working with him. I was like, “Duh, yes!” I thought he was teasing me. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “aliens, acid trip, and with a lot of legs”—and at the back of my mind I was, like, hee, hee, let’s see if he pulls that one off. Need I say more?
Basil Twist: It was a giant Busby Berkley cake with a lot of legs. Actually the acid trip came later because we had all these ideas: I said, “I see you with octopus tentacles,” and you wanted to do something in hell. The acid trip became a way to throw a whole bunch of ideas together so that they just fit under the same umbrella.
Why did you want to work with Joey?
BT: Well, I had known Joey around through my boyfriend Bobby Miller and the club scene. We used to hang at this club called Jackie 60 in the Meat Market. I had seen him perform a lot and I was delighted that Joey had become a fan of my work. As a performer Joey is able to, with the simplest things—a flashlight—completely transform the room. When he came back the timing was just such that it happened to be the 10-year anniversary of Symphonie Fantastique, which had opened the theater that is named after my grandmother at HERE. They got a cancellation and I felt like I needed to do something special. I wanted to make a show that was worthy of a gazillion dollar budget Vegas show, but on that little stage at HERE. When we get talking, we just have fun, we get ideas, and we get excited and it just goes from there. The story basically was about Joey coming home from someplace, in the piece he has been abducted by aliens. We actually pulled this show together really fast. It just poured out, literally, in just a couple of months.
JA: I remember I walked into the studio and Basil was in the middle of the floor with all this fabric. He said, “We went to the garbage and just got all this stuff.” A week or so I came back and it was the jungle for the show.
BT: It was all stuff from Materials for the Arts, which is this service of the city that provides free materials for artists. Instead of throwing stuff away they give it to not-for-profit groups. So a lot of the show was made with free stuff, free labor and favors. Joey, of course, got friends of his from Vegas who adored him to help with certain elements like the sound mixing.
How did you make the selection of music for the show?
BT: I had seen Joey so much that I knew his repertoire, but I wanted to see him do something different, to find things that were new or rarities, or original songs. I feel that he is a great rock singer, so to start with Led Zeppelin in the show is awesome. There are also original songs written for Joey by Alex Gifford and then, of course, we do have a classic Billie Holliday, “You’ve Changed,” which is just such a signature song for Joey.
Joey, how did you make this connection with Lady Day?
JA: It was just one of those voices I heard as a kid. I was just blown away by that style and that sound, so I wanted to find out more about the lady. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, I used to hang out with the son of her last husband Louis McKay. He had this boxful of photographs of Billie Holliday that his father gave him and he would show me these pictures. I started listening to a lot of Billie. My favorite songs are probably from the late 1940s to the early 1950s when she was cracking up a little bit there. You could tell she was trying to keep it together. Life was hard and she is still going to sing through this. I always thought that’s the way I am. So it kind of fed into my soul.
Where did the scene with Joey stomping over the Manhattan skyline come from?
BT: It was born out of something that I had seen Joey do. He had this thing that he used to do at the club Bar d’O in the Village, this T-Rex impression, and he would occasionally be introduced as a dinosaur. So I thought that would be so cool to have that sort of Godzilla effect. It just makes so much sense—that’s the big return to New York: larger than life.
What about the puppet band that accompanies Joey in the show?
BT: I have had them since I was a child. They are antique, almost 90 years old, and they belonged to my grandfather. He was really a big band leader in the 1930s and 1940s. He loved puppets and he would work them himself. They are puppets of famous bandleaders. The puppet would actually stand on the grand piano with a little spotlight on it and would actually lead the band. They were never puppets that I could use a lot because mostly they were very specific. They need a context. So they were kept in this glass case just to look at. It was very weird that I brought them out and used them for this show. But for all of Joey’s wildness and outrageousness, I think Joey is above all a class act. So if there was one person who could actually put those puppets in the respectful place that I think that they merited, I thought it was Joey. That became the seed of the show—Joey and this band, and him eventually getting back to his puppet family. Joey lives so beautifully in the puppet world. He so believes in them; he actually flirts sincerely with the puppets and so the puppets actually become more alive to the people who are watching them.
Joey, what’s it like being the only live performer on this stage? Any concerns about being upstaged by the puppets and the scenery?
JA: I’d want to see somebody try to upstage me! It is about being one with the element and how to become invisible, so they can shine through. The minute you walk on stage, everything is alive. That’s what theater is all about, it’s magic. The spaceship is like skin, it’s breathing. The aliens are really there. I just disappear into this world. Whatever Basil presents, it becomes alive.
BT: To me the analogy is it’s almost like a couture gown. It’s like Joey is wearing this show. It shows him off and he shows off the show—they are made for each other.