Here Arts Center: “Arias With a Twist”

A red velvet curtain slowly opens…to reveal a dark hanging curtain. After a few moments, this layer peels off as well, onto a screen of faux leopard skin. The audience laughs. We are so close to the stage and the small theater makes me hungry for more space. Every time the curtain lifts, I hope it will open up to the stage. Yet even when the leopard skin unfolds, another layer of sheer material divides the performance space from the audience. The suspense created by the peeling of all these layers is repeated in the long wait before Joey Arias, the drag star of “Arias With a Twist“, actually appears on stage. The audience is teased, our gaze at once disappointed and pleased with the repeated delay of satisfaction. We are here to see Arias, we want her, want to hear and see her performance. After all, the reviews have been raving about the show, and Here Arts has decided to extend the performance (originally planned as a four week run between June and July) all the way to December 31.

Finally Arias appears, and what ensues is a series of acts, reminiscent of a cabaret/circus hybrid, full of sex, sensuality, humor and song. And although we might be here to see Arias, Arias is not alone. She has been surrounded by the playful creations of Basil Twist, a third generation puppeteer whose imaginative use of scale, style and color well complements Arias’ performance. Simultaneously loud and intimate, “Arias With a Twist” relies on the talent of Arias and Twist to create a series of scenes loosely tied together by an intricate plot. After being abducted by aliens, Arias is dropped back on earth, where she embarks on a search for a mythical prophet. Arias’ search begins when she takes a bite off of a magic mushroom, and from here on the performance exists on the edge of hallucination. So Arias floats across the stage, while large white hands caress her and eventually dive fingers first into her vagina; she goes to hell and dances with her “boys”, two devils (puppets) endowed with ridiculously large phalluses; and finally, she reaches New York City, where she walks across Manhattan from neighborhood to neighborhood like a human Godzilla in search for a cab.

The hallucinatory quality of the performance ends in the last part of the show, when Arias returns to us as a more classic drag diva in performance. In her closing acts, Arias sings, tap dances while flossing her teeth, and finally appears on a large rotating wedding cake decorated with legs in stockings. Twists’ puppets keep her company until the end, contrasting and complementing Arias’ human presence. These performing objects work both as extensions and amplifiers of Arias’ performance, and as reminders of Arias’ uniqueness (and loneliness, as suggested by Arias’ rendition of the pop classic “All By Myself”).

In a world of puppets and play, Arias is both the human exception and the driving force behind the performance, her audacity and flaunting of all matters sex related both provocative and exhilarating. Arias’ performance pushes the boundaries of the small theater at Here Arts Center, making the space feel too tight for her masterful singing and explosive sexuality. At the same time, there is something powerful about the containment of Arias’ performance, a reminder of the contemporary political and social circumstances, not as willing to play with Arias as the spectators in the audience. Hopefully, someday Arias won’t be “all by [her] self” on the stage, a strange specimen of the human species studied by aliens from another world, and work like “Arias With a Twist” will abound outside New York City’s performance scene.

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