The Independent , September 1, 1993
Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Penny Arcade's all-disco-go-go-dancing show is recommended by therapists to their clients in her native New York. Aaron Hicklin met her.
|In America the show attracted outrage from feminists who attack her use of go-go dancers and nudity.
Abandon preconceptions all who enter here. There's nothing in the least predictable about Penny Arcade. Her show swings from comic recollection to barely contained anger, underpinned by a simple philosophy: love someone and let someone love you.
Her show is entitled Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, but it's neither gratuitous nor in bad taste. Penny Arcade (aka Susana Ventura) performs all of these roles, while simultaneously undermining their derogatory implications. In fact the New Yorker re-invests them with dignity. It's one woman's whirlwind interrogation of sexuality in America and it makes its point with humour and touching honesty.
Arcade wants to be your friend. Like her mentor, Quentin Crisp, she give's her home number to anyone who's interested. "What's good about that is that the pretentious ones throw the number away because it's not exclusive enough," she says. She talks to her audience and expects them to talk back. When they do, she handles them brilliantly. "Have you been in the bathroom all this time I've been talking?" she asks when a voice from the middle row demands a definition of "faghag". Then, "because you've got white hair and whiskers", she relents. "They are the most divine women in the world," she gushes. And you believe her. After all, she's made a career out of being one.
Penny Arcade is one of the most sincere performers now working the Fringe. Believe what you, she says, but don't get into the business of preaching right and wrong ("Because when you get people who have been told what's right, well they usually end up right - very Right"). Consequently, she tears into politically correct liberals and religious fundamentalists with equal venom.
"People are people, and the thing I am trying to tap into is their innate humanness," she offers by way of explanation. "People go to the theatre to experience it through their emotions. They are looking for a magical experience and very rarely get that sort of acknowledgment. I believe in the transformative power of theatre. If I didn't, I would stop."
It's hard to imagine her stopping. She hardly pauses for a breath. Off stage, ass on, she draws people around her into quick-moving conversation: couples at adjacent tables, taxi drivers, shop assistants, passers-by.
For an artist who worked with Warhol in the 1960s, and later with the ground-breaking Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Arcade is remarkably down-to-earth - which might account for the accessibility of her work. The Assembly Rooms show has come straight from New York where it played for a year, the second-longest running off-Broadway show in the city's history. "I call it the drag factor," she says. "People drag their friends along from home and from work. In New York people were coming every night and telling me their therapist had recommended the show."
Which is not altogether surprising. Daughter of Italian immigrants, brought up mostly by an autocratic mother (her father was committed to a mental institution as a result of beatings he received on Ellis Island), she wins over her audience by paring open her own experiences. A segment of the show in which she plays a video of her mother explaining why she beat her daughter is strangely moving, while the central monologue about growing up among gay men through the Sixties and Seventies before watching them die in the age of AIDS is unbearably poignant.
So far Edinburgh audiences have resisted the pulsating disco music and gyrating go-go dancers that sporadically infect the show with sexual energy ("the only energy that exists"), but you can feel the electricity created between performer and audience. Her comedy is not double-edged. It doesn't assault or insult its audience. It cajoles, reasons and teases, approaching the political and personal.
Her targets cross the political divide from white, conservative America to the liberal Left. "I hate the politically correct tendency. When you have a PC movement, you have people who don't think, and as soon as people give up their capacity for inquiry you have the basis for totalitarianism." In America the show attracted outrage from feminists who attack her use of go-go dancers and nudity. "We need a new language in feminism," she argues. "One that includes prostitutes and go-go dancers, one that includes men."
She makes serious points, but she makes them funny. Gays in the military? "There have always been gays in the military, and the Vatican too. The military is run by gay men - gay, white, homophobic men." Lesbians? "Being a dyke in 1993 is like being a fag in 1973 - it's totally in. Lesbians even like sex now. But as far as being a woman...still not so good."
Arcade like the confusion her ambiguous sexuality causes, and thrives in her role as eccentric sex mother. And she is not above selling you a good show when she sees one. Visiting the Waking Dream photography exhibition at Edinburgh's City Art Centre, she reads the description of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron: "Because of the depth of her intellect and the breadth of her spirituality, she attracted the most original minds of her day." "Without being egomaniacal," says Arcade, "I would say that was the same of me."