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‘Arias with a Twist’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther

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A enticing invitation for your imagination’s indulgence comes to you from Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of Arias With A Twist. It’s an explosion of creativity when the minds of Joey Arias, renowned drag diva, and Basil Twist, masterful and magical puppeteer, meet in this conglomeration that can only be described as a blaze of creative passions burning brighter than the sun. There is a nostalgia and glamour to this performance piece echoing through the works of these two artists. With breathtaking dreamscapes and surreal imagery the show transports you to another time and place, into the magical minds of these two geniuses, aided along by the phenomenal puppets and incredible personality of Arias.

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

Director Basil Twist personifies his imagination with his use of puppetry to accentuate the performance of Joey Arias. The puppets become their own characters and personalities bringing a deeper level to this stunning show. Twist’s style of puppetry is easily recognizable, never seeing the puppeteers, allowing each of the puppets – be them humanesque, objects or animals— to have their own personality and become an integral part of the performance. The fusion of visual and aural pleasures could not be accomplished without the technical design team; Sound Designer Greg Duffin, Lighting Designer Ayumu Saegusa, and Projection Designer Daniel Brodie. This trio creates eye-popping visualizations coupled with an entrancing soundtrack to pull the whole show into one phenomenal experience. The kaleidoscope style projections used during certain scenes feel truly surreal, Brodie making them swim across a scrim curtain and making them almost transcend the stage during the hippy-trip number. And combined with precisely timed audio effects the scenes as they form and shift take on a life of their own, becoming a living compliment to Arias’s performance.

The show is not performed by Arias so much as he is fitted into it like a velvet glove; the alchemy between he and Twist being the seams that bring the production together. When Arias first appears on the stage it is a lot to take in; but the personality is there, from the moment the aliens are finished with their probing to the moment Arias lands in the jungle, bitching over a broken nail. There are moments of sheer darkness that Arias masters through physical expression, using the body as an instrument to play an evil tune. When the red demon puppets take the stage, manned by a six person puppetry team (Chris DeVille, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt A. Leabo, Jamie Moore, David Lloyd Olson, and Amanda Villalobos) the audience finds themselves in a fiery inferno. These larger than life demonic puppets entangle themselves with Arias and together they create a forbidden sinful dance – a sinsplosion – amid the flames and fires of hell. Arias has no trouble grinding and moving with these puppets as if they were other actors on the stage, incorporating gestures with them to give them an almost human quality.

Joey Arias in 'Arias with a Twist.' Photo by Steven Menendez.

The puppetry is mind blowing – some of the most unique moments happening when the puppets become extensions of Arias. The Puppetry Team, always shadowed and hidden, manipulate their arms, octopus tentacles, and fans to create dreamlike moments; snapshots of Arias as Shiva, or a human Sea Witch. They utilize their deft ability to transform the star of the show into an event rather than just a performer; a unique aspect of Twist’s puppetry that is found throughout his work.

And there are moments when the audience is entreated to a transformation from Arias as well. Not just the drag queen plowing her way through an alien abduction but she becomes a lounge singer at one point. Taking the stage with the Dream Music Orchestra, four hand carved wooden puppets from the 1930’s, Arias sings for the audience. And her song carries that mournful sound of a fallen star long past her prime making a desperate plea to return to her former glory; an obscure cry from deep within the faded diva within her. Moments like these, as well as the ones where Arias is tramping through New York City like Godzilla really keep the audience on the edge of their attention spans as this show moves through bizarre progressions, almost like an abstract dream.

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

There is much to be said for this incredible fusion of artwork that happens live in this production but it’s best seen rather than read about. So be sure to venture over to Woolly Mammoth for this incredible experience before Arias With A Twist fades away into the night sky.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Arias With A Twist plays through May 6, 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Comopany – 641 D Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 939-3939, or purchase them online.

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