I spent an hour or so puzzling over high-arty things to say about Dogugaeshi, the mesmerizing lo-fi puppet show that’s capping off this spring’s festival of creations by the New York puppeteer Basil Twist, but then I realized I was getting it all wrong. Because what you need to know most is that this is some trippy shit.
No, really: Imagine a room full of people, all moderately high and looking through the same giant kaleidoscope—that’s basically what’s going on up at Studio Theatre these days. The fact that it’s a painstakingly handcrafted kaleidoscope, built in homage to an obscure branch of Japanese stagecraft and operated with mathematical precision by a team of four—that’s the high-art part. But don’t let talk of antique theatrical techniques or vanishing Asian puppetry traditions put you off: Dogugaeshi is funny, and surprising, and moving, and like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The sense that you’re in an altered state? Well, that’s if you let the show work its will on you. The room is dark and small, but after the curtain is drawn—and drawn again, and then drawn yet again, in a signal of what’s to come over the next hour—it becomes clear that the walls of Studio’s fourth-floor black box aren’t big enough to contain Twist’s imagination. Think sliding paper screens, artfully configured to represent landscapes, or seascapes, or sometimes (in one brief and gripping sequence that suggests an abiding awareness of nature’s power) both at once. Think elaborate geometrics, gorgeous florals, majestic dragons and tigers and such, erupting and winking and giving way to more, as a live samisen player (the intensely focused Yumiko Tanaka) weaves angular melodies against a recorded track.
Think of a small room that, with a sliding whoosh, grows seemingly larger, and then larger still, until somehow the forced perspectives of Twist’s layered screens have built a palace whose walls stretch to an impossibly distant horizon. Now imagine that edifice decaying before your eyes, suffering the ruin of time and nature. (The human and the elemental are in constant contention in Dogugaeshi, which is no small part of its strange power.)
Playful (a white fox cavorts among the screens at times, dancing at one point to his own signature melody), precise (especially the warm lighting plot, whose fluid cues work in tandem with the music and the moving images to prod the audience), and ultimately (yes) profound, Dogugaeshi seems both ancient and modern, a salute and a celebration. But it’s the farthest thing from stuffy homage: Basil Twist is a certifiable genius, and his fey energy animates the evening, making it glow with something I can only call a kind of theatrical magic.
Arias With a Twist By Joey Arias and Basil Twist Directed by Basil Twist; At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to May 6
The magic may be more intermittent in Arias With a Twist, the other Twist offering that’s still running (at Woolly Mammoth, this one), but there’s still lots to like. A kind of cracked cabaret built around New York drag celebrity Joey Arias, it’s not an evening for the prudish—it begins with an alien abduction, with all the vigorous probing that entails, and eventually encompasses a side trip to hell in which our heroine gets spit-roasted by two handsomely endowed demon puppets. (And by spit-roasted, I don’t mean they’re char-broiling her. You’ve been warned.)
The puppetry is large-scale this time, as befits a character as flamboyant as Arias; Twist, in collaboration with his star, has created a green Eden for her to crash into once the aliens eject her from their ship, plus a stagewide Manhattan for her to stomp through, King Kong–style, once she makes up her mind that the show must go on. (Oh, right: The conceit is that Arias has been abducted on her way to her Broadway debut.)
The energy flagged a bit when I saw it, early in the run, and it may be that a proscenium house isn’t the ideal venue for Arias, who seems to enjoy messing with audience members in a way that’s hard to do when you’re up on a stage most of the time.
But still: Between the more spectacular moments—by which I mean things like the sight of Arias, done up like Bettie Page in garters and a black leather bikini, being caressed midair by a pink-and-purple octopus of unusual size—things come down to earth occasionally, as when she retires to a fainting couch to sing Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” in the style of Billie Holiday. It’s wildly camp and honestly touching at once—a hell of a thing to pull off, if you ask me.
But then that blend doesn’t rely entirely on Arias’ presence, come to think of it. Something like it is there in a lot of what Twist does; I missed his Symphonie Fantastique at the University of Maryland recently, to my eternal regret, but certainly Dogugaeshi’s sly fox channels something mischievous and arcane, and there was a similar sense of dangerous frolic in Twist’s flirtatious, deliberately attenuated Petrushka at the Shakespeare Theatre. He’s an imp, is what he is—of the perverse, in Arias With a Twist, and of the sublime in the rest of his endlessly fascinating explorations.