On the shoe box-sized stage of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, steps away from the site of last weekend’s Museum of Contemporary Art gala where Miuccia Prada mixed it up with Frank Gehry and Lady Gaga to create a five-minute performance art piece, a smaller scale but bigger impact melding of fashion, high camp and high art opened Wednesday. It stars a 60-year-old drag queen in a Thierry Mugler corset, whose flirting with a marionette jazz band is the tamest of the evening’s person-on-puppet encounters.
That would be Joey Arias, the vocalist and gay New York night-life hero who has elevated drag to an art form with his Billie Holiday-inspired cabaret style. His extravaganza “Arias With a Twist” is a collaboration with Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer and the only American to have graduated from the renowned École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in France. For this production, many of the puppets Twist uses are antiques that belonged to his grandfather -- such treasures that they fly first class, he said.
Onstage, Arias is the lone visible human devouring a visual feast of otherworldly aliens, devils on strings and voracious (and sexually suggestive) vegetation in what ends up being one heck of a trip.
The show’s premiere attracted the alterno-chic set, including actresses Rosanna Arquette and Lisa Edelstein, designers Michael Schmidt, Katy Rodriguez and Raven Kauffman, cross-dressing model Constance and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn.
“I first met Joey in 1989 at the club Save the Robots,” said Bryan Rabin, an event producer, who wore his Stephen Sprouse for Louis Vuitton graffiti-print high-top sneakers as a 1980s homage. “He was rock ‘n’ roll, he was New York City. He was the world I wanted to be in. My parents didn’t have friends like that.”
After a brief stint in improv with the Groundlings in L.A., Arias moved in the 1970s to New York City, where he worked at the Fiorucci clothing store and hung out with underground icon Klaus Nomi. He began his performance career in nightclubs, went on to make music albums, appear onstage (“Christmas With the Crawfords”) and in films (“To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” and “Wigstock: The Movie”).
Before debuting “Arias With a Twist” in New York in June 2008 and taking it on tour, Arias had a six-year run as the mistress of ceremonies in Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show “Zumanity,” which featured costumes by Mugler. But it was George Michael’s 1992 “Too Funky” video directed by Mugler, featuring Arias along with every supermodel of the day, that began the lifelong collaboration between cross-dressing performer and fashion designer. (Check it out on YouTube.)
Of Arias, Mugler says, “He created a new type of show biz -- Kabuki De Sade jazz art.”
Mugler sketched and conceived of the costumes Arias wears in the show -- including a flesh-colored corset with a barely there bikini top and bottom built in. (The execution was carried out by Chris March, the former “Project Runway” contestant, whom Arias met on the production of “Christmas With the Crawfords.”)
Mugler “loves to see the human form pushed to its limits,” Arias said last week. “When I was in Paris seven months ago, he told me to lose weight and get smaller. My first costume got me down to 23 inches [in the waist], in Sweden I was 21 inches, and now I’m down to 18 inches. It’s shocking, but if everyone can do it, it’s not special.”
Although Arias appears larger-than-life onstage, he’s actually of average height, which is a testament to the transformative powers of Mugler’s clothes, which at their most extreme in the late 1980s and early 1990s cinched and squeezed the female form into submission, drawing on custom cars, robots and insects for inspiration.
“I’m completely naked, it’s all flesh and no padding,” Arias said.
“You’re not even sure if it’s real, if it’s a creature of this earth,” Twist added.
Mugler retired from fashion in 2003, choosing to focus on photography and costume design instead. (Rosemary Rodriguez currently designs ready-to-wear collections under the Mugler name). But his aesthetic has been a reference point for several seasons now, at Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Balmain. Indeed, the broad-shouldered styles that trickled down from the runway to Zara and H&M this fall can be traced back to Mugler.
The costumes he made for Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce tour also brought his name to a new generation of fashionphiles, and now there’s talk that he may return to the runway and design a collection for Paris Fashion Week in October.
I think I know someone with an 18-inch waist who would be a perfect model.
“Arias With a Twist” runs through Dec. 13. For tickets, go to www.redcat.org.