Tonight Sophie and I saw Arias with a Twist, and I can safely say that it was a highlight in a year of great New York theatre. The basic set-up is simple: Joey Arias is a legendary Drag performer and, in recent years, first rate interpreter of Billie Holliday songs. Basil Twist is perhaps the leading avant garde puppeteer working in New York – and one of the great figures in the world of non-figurative puppetry. For this show, the two joined forces.
The result was beautiful, sexy, grotesque, hysterically funny, surprising, bawdy and lyrical, and sometimes all of those things at the same moment. And for the first time I realized (I suppose it’s obvious in retrospect) the connection between Drag performance and puppetry. In both cases, reality is replaced by deliberate artifice. The result is simultaneously disturbing and endearing, bawdy and lyrical, with an odd mixture of apparently amateurish clowning and intricately executed professional precision.
Both forms enter the uncanny valley and work their magic by forcing the audience to feel at home there. The very discomfort we feel at knowing we are seeing something patently fake – in fact emphatically fake – creates a kind of charmed circle: The underlying weirdness of it all simply becomes a given, which frees both audience and performer.
And in this space where grotesquery is forgiven, embraced, even loved, artifice becomes a kind of nakedness, an admission of vulnerability. The audience recognizes this vulnerability, and this recognition creates a bond of trust which allows the performance to go deep, to take us to dangerous emotional places that we would normally hesitate to visit (there is a similar sort of head-fake at work in Judd Apatow comedies).
A familiar exemplar of this principle at work in puppetry is Kermit The Frog. He is patently unreal – a bag of green felt with immobile plastic eyes and an obviously faked voice. So when he appears to be insecure, sad, confused, filled with vague and wistful longings, our heart goes out with him. His unreality makes our empathy safe – we are not dealing with a realistic human being, who might turn on us and challenge our right to the intimacy of caring, but rather a creature of pure idea who exists only for receiving our empathy.
Similarly, Joey Arias is, quite obviously – under all that make-up – a large, powerful man who is far from young, the very opposite of the conventional feminine ideal. The very grotesqueness of the pretense, and the utter conviction he brings to it, lifts his Drag persona into a creature of pure idea. The person we see before us exists only to embody the concept that sheer determination and will power can overcome reality itself.
And that is why his renditions of Billie Holliday songs work so well. We recognize the tragedy, the longing, the heartbreak. In the case of Arias it is the character’s heartbreak at being a creature of existential tragedy: A desire to be the pure feminine ideal, to be loved as that ideal, from a singer who is trapped within the beefy, coarse, unfeminine person of a middle aged man.
The addition of Basil Twist’s wondrous and witty puppetry makes it all work even better. It feels as though Arias’ female character is summoning up these unreal visions through the sheer force of her formidable will. We are literally transported into her make-believe world of insane conviction, in a way that constantly reminds us that it is indeed a make-believe world – and this makes it safe for us to enter.
The show has been extended until December 31. If you are going to be in New York, are interested in the possibilities of theatre, and want to see an example of pure magic at work, I suggest you go on-line and get tickets.