by E. Joyce Glasgow -
SGN A&E Writer
Joey Arias in Strange Fruit
Arias With A Twist: The Docufantasy
Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festiva
Joey Arias is a cause célèbre. How many of us can say that The New York Times has written up our birthday party? Or that we have performed with Cirque du Soleil and David Bowie, or have a new film out that was featured in this year's Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival? Or that we've traveled around the world, performing in an innovative puppet show?
Event producer and burlesque artist Paula the Swedish Housewife presented Joey Arias on October 12 at the Triple Door in Seattle. Arias is a natural jazz singer. Even if he wasn't deftly encapsulating the aura of the great Billie Holiday in his trademark homage, Strange Fruit, that evening, he could otherwise very successfully perform in the jazz idiom. His natural musicality, timing, connection to rhythm, emotional interpretations, playfulness, and ease of communicating with his audience are delightful qualities.
Arias was accompanied by an especially fine quartet, with seasoned Seattle locals, Craig Flory (tenor saxophone), Geoff Harper (bass), and Denali Williams (drums). His pianist, Elliot Douglass, is spectacular, and his playing is lush, beautiful, distinctive and ably sets the mood, whether a ballad or swing tune. He knows how to enhance the singer's performance, supporting full expression. I was blown away by his amazing playing and wondered why I had never heard him before (the reason being that Cirque du Soleil has captured this gem of a musician for one of their Las Vegas shows, where he has been performing, sequestered from all but the lucky Las Vegas audiences, for the past seven years).
Arias performed for six years with Cirque in Las Vegas as Mistress of Seduction in their erotic show Zumanity, and only rarely gets to perform with Douglass now, which was our special treat to hear. The group performed a nice variety of songs which kept the set rolling along, interspersed with Arias' wonderful comic remarks and lighthearted, sometimes blue and blatantly suggestive banter with audience members. Arias is in one moment an elegant, graceful diva, and then in the next moment can make a sudden, sexually shocking remark, or casually throw around four-letter words. But, uncannily, he has such a warm heart that the audience takes it all with good humor.
He wore an incredible 1950s-style form-fitting woman's suit, with a short, very cinched waist jacket and long pencil skirt in a burnished, coppery gold brocade that was beautiful on him. A friend in New York made it for him and it was patterned after Kim Novak's dress from Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo. He wore very high stiletto heels, his hair in a braid on top of his head, and had short bangs and smoldering, dramatic makeup.
Arias entertained with two outrageous costume changes, first shedding his Kim Novak suit to reveal almost everything, and though he wore only a strategic bra and landing strip in a flesh fishnet body suit and a black corset, he strutted comfortably and sexily around the stage. Then, for his last two numbers, he donned a flowing, floor-length black coat with long, leopard-lined sleeves, looking like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Arias playfully wandered through the audience in his fishnet bodysuit and acknowledged performer friends who were there, including Teatro Zinzanni favorite El Vez.
Arias channeled iconic Billie Holiday songs, with a voice that was his own - gravely and husky, but also with a good dose of Holiday's sound in it. Arias sang from the Holiday catalogue, and Elliot Douglass played a beautiful solo piece on the piano, 'I Hear Music.' Arias and Douglass did a powerful and sobering duo version of Holiday's 'Strange Fruit,' which she wrote in response to the horror of the lynching of African Americans. Arias prefaced the song by saying that he felt the song also applies to Gay rights, and that all people should be able to be themselves and live peacefully without fear. He closed out the set with an encore of his own lively, original song, 'What a Feeling.'
A few days later, on October 16, Arias' new film, Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy, was shown as part of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre. Arias and the director, Bobby Sheehan, were in attendance to answer questions afterwards. This film is a look into Arias' history in the New York performance art world, culminating in his recent collaborative puppet show with Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer working in New York, who is also one of the best and most innovative puppeteers on the planet. I saw their live show, Arias With a Twist, in its original production at the Here Center in New York City, and it was charming, inventive, whimsical, funny, and wonderfully creative. It has been traveling around the world and in the film we see some performance scenes, rehearsals and backstage preparations as well as comments from Arias and Twist. Arias is hoping to bring it to Seattle, and if it does come here, I highly recommend going to see it. It is fantastic! The Docufantasy also enlightened me to parts of Joey Arias' history that I knew little about. There are a number of interviews with Arias' associates in theatre, art, fashion, and performance worlds, footage of his performances with David Bowie, and from other performance art events. There was coverage of the fact that he was living in the middle of the original AIDS epidemic in NYC, that he had to face the trauma of losing many of his friends in a matter of weeks - sometimes days - to the disease, including his lover and performance and art friends, including Klaus Nomi and Keith Haring.
Joey Arias is an incredible artist, a talented individual, with a big heart and a great generosity of spirit, who loves people and warmly giving of himself.
To learn more about Joey Arias, visit www.joeyarias.com. To see the upcoming schedule at the Triple Door, visit www.thetripledoor.net. To find out about Paula the Swedish Housewife's upcoming productions, visit www.swedishhousewife.com. For information on puppeteer Basil Twist, visit www.basiltwist.com. For information on upcoming performances at the Here Arts Center in New York City, visit www.here.org.
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