The proscenium of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater has been reduced to about one-sixth its normal size, your second clue that you’re in for something completely different tonight.  (The first clue was the young, trendy, a tad pansexual audience milling around the theater’s lobby, bar, and art gallery pre-performance.) Then, as music from another time, another place fills the auditorium, one reduced-size curtain rises only to reveal another, which opens to reveal yet another and another and another … until finally, you see before you a lifelike tuxedoed marionette coaxing out notes on the trumpet, a sensual, dreamlike tune with a 1940s Latin sound. Stars spin around the scrim which separates the audience from the mini-trumpeteer, colored lights flashing and galaxies exploding.  We are told that we’re about to meet “an astrologer, a time-traveler, a polymorph.” 

A flying saucer in miniature spins across the stage signaling the arrival of Aliens come to earth to probe the entertainer who is Joey Arias.  And then, there he/she is, black Bettie Page bangs on his/her forehead, a long black ponytail hanging down his/her back, his/her breasts pushed up by a black wonderbra, waist cinched in tighter than Mammy could ever pull Miss Scarlett’s corset, buns shapely, legs long and svelte. He/she is attached to a human-sized gyroscope, and as he/she spins, the Aliens comment on their prey, their language translated into English and flashed above the stage.  “Perhaps she is in heat,” one says. “Take us to your leader.”  And suddenly, we catch a glimpse of Joey in miniature, plunging down, down, down to earth until he/she arrives in the middle of a jungle like none we’ve ever seen before.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the evening ahead will be a far cry from the mainstream comedies, dramas, and musicals that are StageSceneLA staples, and though avant and garde are two words that usually send me scurrying in the opposite direction, Joey Arias’s latest concoction, Arias With A Twist, kept me mesmerized for its eighty or so amazing  minutes.

I’d never heard of Arias before Arias With A Twist, but a bit of googling reveals that this truly unique entertainer has been a pioneering member of the New York performance art scene for the past four decades. Basil Twist’s name was new to me too, but a bit more googling informs me that Twist, the country’s preeminent puppeteer, is currently working on the pre-Broadway Chicago engagement of The Addams Family musical. Together, Arias and puppeteer/director Twist have conspired to bring L.A. audiences the same show that wowed New York last year.

Since one picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a mini-tour of Arias With A Twist, worth ten-thousand or so.

“I think I broke a nail,” complains Joey after falling from the Aliens’ flying saucer to the ground. “At least I’m in one piece.  Feeling and looking fine, almost.” 

“Where am I?” Joey wonders upon arrival in the jungle, flowers blooming magically hither and thither and a tempting snake crawling through the branches of the jungle trees and bushes.


Doesn’t Joey look fetching, posed atop a tree stump smack dab in the middle of the jungle?  “Oh, it’s so comfy!” cooes Joey.  “Eat your heart out, Ikea!”  And then it “Holy Shitaki!”, for Joey has eaten a magic mushroom and being sent on a very special trip.

Busby Berkeley would be proud of Joey atop this giant sized wedding cake surrounded by mesh-stockinged legs every bit as curvaceous as Joey’s own.  OMG, that’s Joey’s face reflecting out from the giant gams stage right and left.

Joey plummets again, surrounded by spinning monkeys, an ice cream cone, and a shrunken harpist.

Here’s real-life Joey (l.) and the amazingly lifelike mini-Joey stunt double.  

Is this hell Joey is in, or is it heaven?  Take a look at the bigger-than-life phalluses hanging from Joey’s dance partners and you’ll know the answer.

Who out there remembers The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman, once a “normal, voluptuously beautiful woman” who drove into a nightmare of horror?  Well, she couldn’t hold a candle to Joey, who attacks the city of New York, munching on taxis the way most people munch on a banana.

And then there’s Joey the human octopus, looking like nothing The Little Mermaid ever saw under the sea.

Finally, there’s Joey Arias, songstress extraordinaire, with a voice that echoes the raspy glory of Miss Billy Holiday’s, singing “All By Myself,” “Kashmir,” “Jungle Of Eden,” and Holiday’s very own “You’ve Changed” in a voice that that can stand by itself, even without the Arias glamour and pizzazz.

These brief descriptions and tiny thumbnails can only hint at the magic of Arias With A Twist.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve never seen anything in a live stage production quite like the visual images created for this one.  There are Twist’s extraordinary puppets, the costume concepts of Artistic Advisor Thierry Manfred Mugler (costumes executed by Chris March), Daniel Brodie’s psychedelic video design, and Ayuma “Poe” Saegusa’s dramatic lighting all coming together for something quite spectacular. Greg Duffin’s pulsating, throbbing sound design fills the theater with high-decibel melody, including original songs by Alex Gifford, with all of this directed by none other than Twist, the handsome devil to Joey Arias’s right in the picture below. 

Yes, there is comfort in the familiar, but once in a while it’s nice to step out of that comfort zone and walk on the wild side. A trip to Joey Arias/Basil Twist land could well be just what the doctor ordered to spice up your mundane everyday life.  Mundane and everyday are two things Joey Arias most certainly is not.

Puppeteers: Eli Presser, Kate Brehm, Kirsten Kammermeyer, Matt Leabo, Jessica Scott, Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith

The Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater, Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex, 631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 25, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Steve Menendez

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