SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Basil Twist is a puppeteer who's been called a genius. Puppeteer. Genius. Same sentence. His creations have been in museums, operas, on Broadway and TV. They've even been underwater and performed with a drag queen. Right now in Washington, D.C., there's a Basil Twist Festival: Four different theaters doing four of his shows.
As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, Basil Twist is stretching the definition of puppetry as far as it can go.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Basil Twist knows that puppetry is a hard sell.
BASIL TWIST: It's not of this time. It's not of the world we live in now.
BLAIR: But he puts it there. Basil Twist's puppets can be scary and gorgeous and sexy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
BLAIR: In one show, a real drag queen dances with two muscle-y, life-sized, red, male devils with horns. He created the puppets for "The Addams Family" on Broadway, and even consulted on a Harry Potter movie. And yet, he says, he still has to constantly explain what he does. So he carries around a simple, wooden marionette, named Stick Man, in a tenor saxophone case. People often ask him, do you play?
TWIST: Or people ask me, oh, what is that? And I just tell them it's a tenor saxophone or a, you know, clarinet, or something, just because the puppet conversation is too involved in those moments.
BLAIR: Too many questions, says Twist, like: Do you do your own voices? No, he doesn't really use voices in his work. Do you make your own puppets? He does - with just about anything he can find - scraps, shower curtains, coat hangers.
TWIST: I love coat hangers. It's the perfect wire. You can make shapes. You can even buy that stuff.
BLAIR: Another question he gets a lot: Is Basil Twist your real name? It is.
TWIST: And I'm actually Basil Twist III. So my father and my grandfather are also Basil Twist.
BLAIR: He's also a third generation puppeteer. His maternal grandfather was Griff Williams, a dance band leader in the 1930s and 40s, who also used puppets as part of his act.
TWIST: And he had these puppets of other famous band leaders.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And best known as the King of Jazz, but we like to call him Pops, Paul Whiteman.
TWIST: Paul Whiteman, Toscanini, Harry James and Cab Calloway and they were beautiful carved wooden puppets, worked on strings. And he at the end of a, you know, of an evening, when the band was playing, he would bring out the puppets.
BLAIR: And they would lead the band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")
BLAIR: Basil Twist's grandfather died before he was born, but at age 10, when he says he was already way into puppets, his grandmother gave him his grandfather's puppets.
TWIST: And I had them for years and years and years. And they're kind of spooky, these old antique puppets.
BLAIR: That he cherishes. Twist knows so much about the history of puppetry that he often reaches back in time for his own very ambitious ideas.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)
BLAIR: At the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., nine puppeteers and three stagehands are setting up backstage for Basil Twist's version of "Petrushka," one of his most traditional shows. But because he wants his performers to leap and fight and cry and dance, it takes three people to manipulate one puppet.
(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL FOR PLAY, "PETRUSHKA")
BLAIR: Some of Basil Twist's shows have no particular story at all. He's known for creating moving, abstract images, with luminescent colors and shapes. "Symphonie Fantastique"" is an entire puppet show underwater.
TWIST: I just thought that'll be cool to do something underwater. And this tank showed up, you know, on the street, where people throw stuff away.
BLAIR: He now performs the piece in a custom-made tank.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM SHOW, "SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE")
JOEY ARIAS: My jaw is on the floor just looking at "Symphonie Fantastique" or "Petrushka" or - I just wanted to be in the shows.
BLAIR: That is Joey Arias, a drag queen, who's worked with Cirque du Soleil and made his own avant-garde theater. Arias remembers the first meeting with Basil Twist to talk about what they could do together.
ARIAS: He said what do you want to do? And I said, you know, just anything. I said well, how about being abducted by aliens, and an acid trip, and some Busby Berkeley, you know, piece where some giant cape with a million girls and a million legs and the fabric goes up and, you know, very, you know, that whole kaleidoscope thing going on. He was like, OK.
BLAIR: "Arias With a Twist" is definitely not for kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KASHMIR")
LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) I am a traveler of both time and space to be where I have been.
BLAIR: At one point, Joey Arias tap dances with a line of puppet showgirls. And remember the antique puppets Basil Twist inherited from his grandfather, the band leaders? Just for this show, Twist took them out of their glass case.
TWIST: It was such a great thing to put my grandfather's puppets back into play, you know. They don't want to just be in a glass case or in a box, they want to be on stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TWIST: For sure. And they want to be, you know, touring the world.
BLAIR: As Joey Arias puts it, what Basil Twist does is not puppetry. It's magic.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.