I'm about to break one of the cardinal rules of my criticism course. I encourage my students to eschew "empty" adjectives ("amazing," "fabulous," "incredible," etc.) and search instead for more specific and evocative words when they're writing up their reviews.
One word in particular that I specify as verboten is "fierce." In current parlance, "fierce" is a facile catchphrase for gay boys, and the girls who love them, to describe their latest obsession: Beyoncé's latest video, Adele's new CD, a pink leatherette Chihuahua carrier with Swarovski crystal studs, etc.
But I find myself thinking that "fierce" is really the best word to describe Joey Arias and the latest version of his one-man-many-puppet show, Arias With a Twist. I mean, the man, and the show, are truly fierce, in every sense of the word: intense, ferocious, aggressive, and, well, just all around fierce, girl.
I missed Arias With a Twist during its 2008 engagement, but when I heard it was coming back, supposedly bigger and better than before, I knew I had to take it in. For the uninitiated, Joey Arias is a drag queen par excellence, who's long been an active part of the downtown and nationwide drag scenes, including numerous appearances at Wigstock and a prolonged stint as mistress of ceremonies in Cirque du Soleil's adult-themed Vegas show, Zumanity. Arias is also a unique song stylist, sporting a voice that's, at various times, part Billie Holliday, part Tallulah Bankhead, and part Betty Boop. (For a sample, watch this video from the show.)
What makes Arias With a Twist especially...well, twisted...is the lavish production, designed and directed by Basil Twist, known heretofore mainly as a puppeteer. The show would appear to be a mind- and gender-bending merger of like sensibilities: Arias With a Twist is far more than just a song set; it's more like a mind set. The show is constructed around Arias's journey through outer space and an uncharted rain forest. Then it's down to the depths of Hell itself, before Arias finally lands on the stage of the Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side.
Arias leads the audience through a slick multimedia series of scenarios, accompanied by songs ranging from Led Zepellin to Eric Carmen, as well as original songs by Alex Gifford. Once Arias reaches New York, in the context of the show's plot, we move past the more psychedelic aspects of the show and settle in for a mini-concert, which builds rather joyously to a self-consciously camp Busby Berkley finale.
With this new "deluxe" version of Arias with a Twist, we basically have a drag queen with a dream budget, which helped pay for some rather sadistic costumes designed by Thierry Mugler. But, despite some rather painful-looking outfits, Arias seems to be having a ball, as did the audience of Arias faithfuls who populated the audience on the night I attended. Along the way, we encounter some vintage marionettes, which at first, in the dim light of the show's opening sequence, seemed eerily realistic.
We are also treated to some of Basil Twist's newest creations, puppets that range from the primitive to the disturbingly realistic. (I genuinely covet one of the uncanny little Joey dolls: small, medium or large.) Despite the replete presence of puppets, this is clearly not a show intended for kids. Unless, of course, you're the kind of parent who doesn't mind sitting next to your children as they watch a grown man in drag fellate an outsize effigy of one of Satan's minions.
Arias With a Twist runs through October 16th, but based on some glowing reviews, including one from our man Ben at the New York Times, I wouldn't be surprised if the show transferred to another locale for an additional, or even an extended run.