"The theme seems to be puppets," said a friend regarding the papery mop-heads that popped up multiple times this year at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's TBA Festival.

"No, it's about drag queens," I replied.

For all you uncultured folks who aren't hip to the orgy of performance called Time-Based Art, it's too late for you to discover its mysteries. The fest has clocked out. But there's still time to review some of what spooled out across the city over the last two weeks.

I've been a big fan of TBA since its inception in '03. In '05 I was accused by some readers of being too critical of TBA, specifically for believing PICA relied too heavily on queer performers to give it its cutting edge.

Well, this year it was more about gender, specifically transgender. And guess what? I thought it was great. Despite my rants about Kiki and Herb (see Queer Window, Sept. 6, 2006), who I heard had a much better show than the last time they were here, I can't get enough of that stuff. Because, like it or not, the ever-morphing world of gender is making a mark in the world of entertainment, especially when it comes to its fringe. You could've seen that last Tuesday, Sept. 12, when a double dose of local tranny-emissions, Sissyboy and Caught in Candy, spewed from the stage of Audio Cinema, the Southeast warehouse that was home to TBA's late-night "Works" scene.

While I've become less a fan of the drag fare featured in local clubs and cabarets, these two performance troupes proved they're on to something fresh in the world of female illusion. Rather than pretend they're someone else, like Babs, Liza or Cher, these new-age divas are becoming interesting storytellers. It seems dragsters no longer need to mimic the world, but find their own special place and stories in it.

Now, I've spilled way too much ink already on the politically infused but always spot-on Sissyboys. But I've rarely mentioned the dynamic electric pop duo that is Caught in Candy. Maybe that's because one half of the duet is the cross-dressing Mickey Pollizatto, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a roommate of a co-worker at Willamette Week. The other half is Daniel Bidwell, who looks like a drag king even though he's a real, live boy.

I don't quite know what to make of these two local queer boys who have a penchant for pairing purses with their own highly original, percussive, '80s-sounding new wave music. Are they character actors? Song-and-dancers? The drag world's equivalent to Laurel and Hardy? I think the latter is the closest. To me it's like they're silent screen stars that have finally found their voice. In the past they've performed as DannyDamage and MikkiSpin, but on Tuesday it was their darkly dramatic Euro characters of "Cabiria Jones" and "Maximillian Hertzalot" who took the stage. Over the period of an hour a rapt audience watches as "Cabiria" and "Max" fought to the death in a show that had equal parts old-school burlesque and futuristic techno-beat. It's interesting to note that Mikki and Danny were asked to just play a sample of their last two years' worth of work for TBA, but decided to turn it all into a musical. For me I guess that's what Time-Based Art is all about when it works. Seeing what happens when someone is given the time, the encouragement and, most importantly, a venue full of fellow freaks who are willing to watch as you try something new. And, oh yeah, don't forget those puppets.