Joey Arias & Raven O Reunite at the Art House
by Steve Desroches
The sky has just turned gray on a hot and steamy summer day. The air is charged with the promise of a thunderstorm that never materializes. Down Winthrop Street headed toward the cemetery, where Provincetown’s oldest graves come from the ground at rakish angles that show their age, are two androgynous figures walking slowly. One is clad in a long black caftan holding a black parasol and wearing oversized black sunglasses bedazzled with sparkling silver stones reminiscent of Jackie O. The other is covered in tattoos from the waist up, wearing black pants emblazoned with a glowing image of a skeleton from the waist down. The heat coming off the street distorts the pair in translucent waves. A man on his bicycle zips by, his brakes screeching as he does a double take. Who are they? Are they a specter from another dimension? A resurrection from the grave? Edward Gorey children all grown up?
While “all of the above” may be an appropriate answer, this otherworldly duo are downtown New York nightlife legends Joey Arias and Raven O, in Provincetown for the summer, performing together for the first time in 10 years. In the 1990s Arias and Raven were the toast of the town in New York with their show, which also starred Sherry Vine, at the legendary Bar d’O. In the first decade of the new millennium the two parted ways, pursuing new opportunities on their own. They are reuniting this summer, and chose Provincetown as the place to rekindle the magic that happens when they get together.
“I love Provincetown,” says Raven O as to why of all the places in the world they could perform they chose here. “I like a challenge. Provincetown audiences can be fickle. I’ve been here many times before. I got married four years ago here. I love Provincetown. It has everything when it comes to performance. So why not us?”
“It’s all fantastic,” says Arias. “But they don’t have what we do. We’re thrilled to be at the Art House. They’ve really done a great job. The Art House is all live performance. I wanted to be at a place that is known for all of its live entertainment.”
“They’ve given us so much creative freedom,” says Raven. “It’s always about the love of the music.”
Arias first came to notoriety when he modeled and performed in the window of a shop for clothing designer Fiorucci in the late 1970s in New York. There he met fellow alternative performer Klaus Nomi. Both their performance chops and unique style led to dancing and singing backup for David Bowie when he appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1979. Throughout the 80s and 90s Arias’ cabaret shows were must-sees for not only his tremendous talent, but also for his rare ability to consistently be a true original. It’s that reputation built on the foundation of his accomplishments that has him traveling the world from Sydney to Las Vegas. The performance world is still abuzz over his landmark show Arias with a Twist, a piece he created with master puppeteer Basil Twists that played to sold-out audiences in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, London, and Paris. He is also particularly well known, of course, for his ability to perform and sound like Billie Holiday, earning the nickname “Lady Night,” a play on Holiday’s moniker “Lady Day” and Arias’ creature of the night ways.
“I’m very nocturnal,” says Arias, sitting on the metal split rail fence at the Winthrop Street cemetery. “Nothing happens until after six!”
Raven O burst onto the scene and into the artistic consciousness in the 1990s in New York, both for his inimitable vocal abilities and edgy arrangements, and for being a key member of the drag explosion in New York City at that time, which is ironic as, like Arias, Raven, for the most part, created a non-gender-specific character that evolved into an authentic onstage persona.
“That’s what is interesting about Joey and I; we never created drag characters, we created women characters,” says Raven. “But most of the time people would come in to Bar d’O and ask ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ We don’t fit well into any mold. We’ve been told we’re too gay and we’ve been told we’re not gay enough. But our demographic is vast and our audiences are from everywhere. We just finished performing in Vegas to mostly Middle America. “
“Raven has this mystique,” says Arias. “He’s otherworldly.”
“When I look at Joey, he’s someone who is the personification of living their art,” says Raven.
It’s just that mélange of mystery and ambiguity that caught the eyes of Zumanity producers. Both did multi-year starring role stints with Cirque du Soleil’s adults-only seductive burlesque cabaret in Las Vegas. They definitely left their mark in Sin City, bringing an edgier performance scene to the Strip.
“The director would say, ‘Under no circumstances should those two be on stage together because no one will watch what is going on’,” says Raven about their time together in Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil. Indeed to these two could steal the spotlight from a contortionist or a bare-breasted woman spinning from the ceiling on silk ribbons, quite easily.
A little Vegas has rubbed off on them as well, as their cabaret show Wanted Live at the Art House has the unique and compelling blend of downtown New York with a splash of Vegas hip. And since their show opened in Provincetown, the two have been making their mark in a town with a history of one of the most varied performance scenes in the country, especially for a town so small.
“It’s wonderful to be here in Provincetown,” says Arias, who first came to town to perform in the late 1990s. “I feel so relaxed. What we want is our audiences to feel at home.”
“I always try to honor the audience,” says Raven. “I love our audiences. I love our audiences here in Provincetown.”