Performance: Twist Pulls Off His Own Twist on Puppetry

A Basil Twist Puppet | Photo by Richard Termine.

Everywhere you read or hear about Basil Twist—the New Yorker, the Post, YouTube (highly recommended) — he’s described as a puppeteer, or third-generation puppeteer, or world-renowned puppeteer.
The third-generation thing is stretching things, the world-renowned is dead on, but puppeteer … Well, it’s just not enough. It’s like calling Schubert a songwriter and leaving it at that.
Geppetto was a puppeteer. Basil Twist is something else.
Just what Twist is and does should become fairly clear to Washingtonians — or maybe not — during the course of the next nearly two months, a time frame which amounts to a Basil Twist festival of four of his works at four different venues.  All of them are different from each other — naturally, as Twist might say, because he is forever exploring the form, trying new ways of creating puppetry, standing the form on its head, leaving shiny welts.
Twist, who is only 42, is becoming a one-man buzz, noteworthy, praiseworthy and just plain worthy at a time when puppetry itself is becoming prominent, especially on the nation’s stages, but also in the special-effects laden world of film. 
Think of puppets, and you do think of Geppetto and Pinocchio, the puppet who became a boy and similar children’s stories that work well with characters manipulated by sticks and strings.
What Twist does is honor the primal past, the classic form, listens to the music in his head and outside of it and marries it to things never done before. He collaborates with someone like Joey Arias, described as “drag chanteuse extraordinaire” to come up with a production the likes of which you’ve never seen before.          
The Twist festival amounts to four theatrical events literally beyond category.  At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, there’s a stunningly beautiful production of “Petrushka,” which is puppetry about puppets, a classic tale from the world of ballet about three puppets at a Russian carnival, a kind of love triangle about puppets aided and abetted by Stravinsky’s original ballet score in a two-piano version played by pianists Julia and Irina Elkina.   The style of puppetry is gorgeous in the Japanese and Czech manner and runs through March 26.

At the Studio Theatre, Twist resurrects what amounts to a nearly lost art and form of puppetry of “Dogugaeshi,” a production involving sliding doors and original Shamisan compositions performed by master musician Yumiko Tanaka. (April 11 through 22)

Going farther afield and under water brings you to a Swift classic, a production of “Symphonie Fantastique” at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.  An abstract work set to the music of Hector Berlioz is performed in a 1,000-gallon water tank, “using mirrors, slides, dyes, blacklight, overhead projections, air bubbles, latex fishing lures and other sundry material. (March 29 through 31)

Finally, there’s “Arias with a Twist” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, April 4 through May 6, in which the aforementioned Joey Arias and Twist collaborate on a magical-mystery tour of music, dancing, singing, with the Garden of Eden, a space lab and just about anything else you can imagine thrown in.
Twist in a phone interview said that “I’m fascinated by the use of music, by all the other forms of puppetry that go back practically to the cave man. Puppets have always been with us. They’re primal.

In his program notes for “Petrushka”, Twist states the case and his reason for being simply. “Puppets are magic,” he writes. “The mystery of a bundle of cloth coming to life and inspiring emotion in an audience is what has kept me captivated by this art.

By animating puppets—including puppet forms, inanimate objects and characters—he makes magic.  When he talks about how puppet is animated not only by him but by the audience, he’s talking about the essence of performance art, of theater and dance. “Puppets are often thought of as belonging to children,” Twist said.  “That’s great and partly true, that’s where everything starts, but I’m trying to move things to move constantly forward.” He is to puppetry what Joyce and Beckett where to literature, making abstractions come to life.

But he shares one thing with Geppetto, and maybe with Doctor Frankenstein as well and that’s the urge to bring something that’s inanimate, lifeless to life.
“Think about that, it’s so awesome to me to be able to do this,” Twist said. “And we’re talking about shapes, things themselves, not just characters in a story.”
“It’s true I grew up with puppets,”  he said. “My mother did puppet shows. As far as that third-generation thing, I had a grandfather who was a big band leader. He had puppets that looked like band leaders of the time. “
Arias had his own puppets, but he did not become serious about the form until he attended and graduated from the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres in France.
It’s fair to say that Twist is a transformative figure in an art form that is beginning to loom large, beyond the boundaries of carnivals and children’s shows.  He created puppets for the Broadway musical “The Addams Family,” and he’s listed in the credits as underwater puppet consultant for the last Harry Potter show.

If, like Duke Ellington, his work seems to be beyond category, you do know exactly where it’s headed. It’s in the direction of making the heart, the head and the soul of puppetry larger.

In Petrushka”, probably the most accessible of the four works in the festival, he uses non-traditional and traditional tools to bring alive a classic tale. It’s startling, gorgeous it swims around in your head afterwards. After the show, beaming like a young kid, he explained some of the tricks of the process, without every once negating the magic and mystery of it all.

Making the puppets, the shapes, the detailed work is probably a herculean, detailed effort.  But behind it is a vision, not so precise, but clear. “More than anything,” he says. “I have to think and feel that it’s good. “

Now there’s a Twist.

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