Depending on your point of view, Joey Arias is either classic or hoary. A legend of ’80s drag and performance art, he’s been missing from New York since 2002, when he flew to Vegas to emcee Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity.” For his grand return, Arias is partnering with puppeteer Basil Twist on “Arias With a Twist,” a cracked evening of song, dance and corny jokes, all delivered in the maybe-he’s-drunk style of a downtown club.
Those who enjoyed Arias’ heyday — or have a taste for queer performance history — should have a blast. Thesp still has a punk rock-style vibe, relying more on energy and audacity than on technical skill to sell every number. His throaty wail, archetypal drag queen fierceness and willingness to thrust his crotch against any surface make him impossible to ignore.
Anarchy rules the writing, too. There’s a vague plot about Arias being kidnapped by aliens, but most scenes giddily ignore the story. One moment, the thesp is lost and frightened in an ominous jungle; the next, he’s Godzilla-size, stomping through a miniature version of Manhattan and biting the corners off of skyscrapers.
Musical styles change as often as the setting, flitting among Beatles covers, techno songs and new tunes by Alex Gifford. Arias sings with impressive range, hitting falsetto notes and low tones with equal force.
But as committed as he is, Arias feels stuck in the ramshackle aesthetic of the ’80s. Drag isn’t underground anymore, and edgy performers like Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) have pushed the genre forward with sharp material and sophisticated artistic goals. Next to them, Arias’ corny quips about alien abduction (“Roswell that ends well”) sound superficial. Auds unaware of his significance could lose their patience.
Few, however, could question Twist’s ingenious designs, which alternate between charming and creepy. In the former camp, there’s a jungle backdrop filled with blooming flowers, a scampering monkey and a python that slides through the trees. In the latter, there’s a pair of giant demons with enormous phalluses. Even though a team of puppeteers makes the devils dance in time to a house beat, their glowing eyes (and sheer size) are unsettling.
French 1980s and early ’90s fashion designer Thierry M. Mugler’s costumes are appropriately extreme, ranging from evening gowns with severely wide hips to skimpy strips of black fabric that barely cover anything. (Costumes were constructed by recent “Project Runway” contestant Chris March.)
Out of all the creatives, lighting designer Ayuma “Poe” Saegusa provides the most beautiful moment. Slumped on a settee and wearing a tasteful gown, Arias sings the power ballad “All by Myself.” The light, however, is aimed at his microphone instead of his face, and everything else is in darkness. We can barely make out the performer, which gives haunting beauty to the song. For a few verses, Arias becomes a symbol of loneliness. He seems timeless.