By Alonso Duralde
Originally published on Advocate.com November 17 2009 8:45 AM ET
It’s a marriage made in performance-art heaven: take Joey Arias (pictured), New York City club legend and the original Mistress of Seduction for Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s adults-only show in Vegas, and add brilliantly eccentric third-generation puppeteer Basil Twist, known for staging puppet shows everywhere from tiny New York theaters to under water.
Stir in costumes designed by Thierry Mugler and executed by Project Runway fave Chris March, and you’ve got Arias With a Twist, a one-of-a-kind multimedia extravaganza that takes the talents of its titular stars and combines them into a soaring work of music, dance, puppetry, and much more.
Arias With a Twist makes its Los Angeles debut at the REDCAT Theater in an engagement running November 18 through December 13, so we got Arias (in New York) and Twist (in Chicago, where’s he’s working on previews for the upcoming Broadway musical The Addams Family) on the phone to talk about their collaboration.
Advocate.com: You’ve already performed this show not just in New York but also in Belgium, France, and Sweden. Do you sing in other languages or do it as is?
Joey Arias: People want to hear you sing in your natural tongue. It’s not a real complicated script, although when we were in Paris we had subtitles, like a European film. And basically most of the people there understood English, and those that didn’t, they could get it. In Stockholm they speak perfect English, so they get every little innuendo. It was great.
So what was the genesis of this project?
Basil Twist: Joey and I had been talking about doing something for a while, but I didn’t know if it was really going to happen. We performed at a party together about two years before the show, where I used my grandfather’s puppets, and it was such a rousing success that we used that as the base. And then there was a cancellation at a little theater where I run the puppetry program, and it was coming up on the 10th anniversary of the theater, and I thought Gosh, I have to pull something together really special really quick. And Joey had just come back from Las Vegas, and it just seemed like the time to make something really special on many fronts — for me, and I think for Joey, for his return after being gone for so long. We just sat down and started talking about songs we wanted to do.
JA: Yeah. I think the first song that we were really considering was the [Led] Zeppelin song “Kashmir.” And I took that to Basil, and Basil and I talked, and he asked me what I imagined, and I just said, “Alien abduction, acid trip, big Busby Berkeley number, and a big cape with a million lights on it!” And Basil very happily said, “I can do that, no problem!” [Laughs] Yeah, right. And of course, it went beyond all expectations — the most beautiful baby was being born.
BT: The ideas that came out in the first few days of talking about it, the first ideas that we threw out, they all made it in the show. That was the show, that was all that took — a little dreaming and throwing it out there.
At one point did you feel like you were really on to something?
JA: Just the idea of working with Basil, every idea was just magical, and a challenge, and just seeing it come to fruition was amazing. I can’t pick a favorite part of the show, because I love everything in it. The work and the dreaming that came together, that was the most exciting.
BT: You’ve said in the past, Joey, you would come and see some of my shows and you wished you could climb into them. And it takes a certain kind of performer who can exist in a completely artificial puppet world, and Joey is that performer. And I had seen Joey and admired for years his transportive qualities, where he could take the most mundane place and make it feel like you were entering another world. So I don’t know, it just seemed like a perfect marriage of this sort of fantasy that I make and the kind that Joey conjures up onstage, just being together.
So how did you guys meet?
JA: Uh, probably in a sex bar. [Both laugh]
BT: I don’t know, in a couple of different ways. My old boyfriend knew Joey long before I did, and then I used to work a lot with Sherry Vine in making puppets for her drag theater extravaganzas, and Joey saw a lot of those.
JA: And over time we just grew closer and friendlier. Like Basil said, every time I’d see one of his productions, I would just think, God, I want to be in the middle of all that!
BT: I still live around the corner from where Bar d’O used to be, the lounge that Joey ruled in the ’90s, and I would go all the time to hear Joey sing. And we were both part of this downtown world, and I don’t know, there’s a lot of cross-pollination of that world. It’s very incestuous.
Over the course of doing this show in various cities, has it progressed, or did you pretty much lock it up right away?
BT: I was just astounded that we were able to get it up at all in another city, because it was like an installation in the space where it was in New York City. It was very, very intimate. So I was afraid that we would never even be able to re-create it, and just that we were able to feels like a huge accomplishment. But I think there’s naturally something that shifts when you’re in front of a different audience — and they’ve been larger audiences too — and those are mostly things that Joey is a master of, reading an audience. So when he’s in Paris, I don’t know, there’s a slightly different twist he puts on things, as opposed to Stockholm. It’s what the audiences bring to it that changes it.
JA: I just channel that energy from the audience.
And in a show that’s this elaborate, do you find there’s still room for improvisation?
BT: There are sections where Joey does, at the concert at the end in particular. The puppeteers have very specific tracks, so they need to stick to their plan. [Laughs] But Joey has the freedom and the skill to play around that when there’s room for that. And there are some scenes that allow for that, where he interacts with the audience more.
JA: Yeah. Especially in a show like this, where you’ve got to be absolutely spot-on because of the lighting, I can’t just take off and walk into the dark.
BT: The stage we originally made it on was tiny, tiny, tiny, so a couple of inches would make a huge difference, where a piece of scenery couldn’t come on.
Joey, are you still going in and out of Zumanity?
JA: No, not at all, but the checks keep coming in and out. [Laughs] Because I wrote three songs for the show, and I don’t get credit for the dialogue and all the extra stuff, but I get credit for the songwriting. But that’s something that I created, and something that will always be strictly Joey Arias.
Basil, have you considered branching out into feature film? Stop-motion animation seems to have gotten a lot more popular over the last decade or so, and it seems like it would be a field that’s tailor-made to your talents.
BT: Well, stop-motion animation is very related to puppetry, it’s a lot of the same spirit behind it. But I like live theater, I have to say. I like the live experience. There’s something great about it. And puppetry, as elaborate as our show is, it’s very simple, it’s like a Little Rascals production in a barn, a lot of strings and tape and felt and fabric. And I like that low-tech spirit that puppetry uses to create such fantastic things, as opposed to computer-generated imagery and stuff, which seems to me to be such a cop-out. So, I don’t know, I wouldn’t totally pass up any film opportunity, but I’m very much a live theater person.
Tell me about what we’ll be seeing from you in the upcoming Addams Family Broadway musical, if you’re allowed to talk about that.
BT: Well, I’m not supposed to say stuff. I’ve already said stuff, and I’ve gotten busted. [Laughs] But, you know, I’m sort of contributing to the strange and weird presences in the Addams Family household. It’s not like The Lion King, but there are some flourishes and some extra textures in the show by having some puppetry, some more fantastical creatures and some of the well-known characters like Cousin Itt be a puppet.
BT: Actually, no, because the Broadway show is based on the original New Yorker cartoons and not the TV show, Thing was actually a development for the TV show and then more so for the films. They have to tread carefully around those kinds of issues. The intellectual property is based on the cartoons, which are extremely rich and have a real elegance to them, so I think it’s great.
It would seem that you each appeal to different demographics — are you bringing each other’s audience to each other?
BT: It seems like it. We sort of have this crossover place where we have the same audience, but then I’ve done all this stuff uptown, at Lincoln Center, and Joey’s done many kinds of cabaret and music and club things. And he has such a history in New York with so many different people. So a lot of people were coming to see either my work or Joey’s work and then discovering the other person for the first time. But there are definitely people who know us both.
JA: I used to tell people, “Come and see this great puppet show — it’s going to blow your mind.” So they would come to see Basil and have no idea what to expect, and their jaws would absolutely fall out.
BT: And then a lot of people came to the show who had never experienced Joey before, some people who just read about it in The New York Times or The New Yorker and thought, Oh, this sounds like an interesting piece. It’s very difficult to describe Joey Arias if you’ve never experienced him. [Laughs]
JA: Yeah, I hate when people just throw “drag queen singer” at me; that’s a real cop-out when they do that.
BT: I don’t know how to put it into words; I wouldn’t dare try.