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Taking On the Problems of the
World, One by One:
Anybody that has ever seen Penny Arcade perform, be it in one of her own wildly unconventional extravaganzas, or in a traditional play, which she has lately begun to explore, knows full well that she is a riveting force of nature, one that compels us, not only to hang onto her every word and action, but to examine the trajectory of both society and our own lives. I guess what I am saying is that Arcade is a kind of Everywoman, one that no matter how personal, or outlandish her truth-telling, laying it on the line, revelations are, like an arrow aimed at the bull's-eye, they fly straight, unerringly so, into the middle our hearts.
For the past number decades, Arcade, who has worked with Warhol at the tender age of 15, has been taking her act around the world. And wherever she performs people line up to hear what she has to say. Last year, putting her own shows, solo and otherwise, on hold, she spread her wings by tackling the lead role, at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City - of Celeste Delacroix Griffin, a lusty, down, but not out, character, in Tennessee William's play The Mutilated. Playing opposite actress Mink Stole who is known for her numerous John Waters films, the New York Times wrote "Penny Arcade's big, bold performance radiates a lusty hunger that perfectly captures the character."
Arcade's biggest hit – her signature piece, if you will – which she has been performing for some twenty years, both here and abroad, is Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! The show, burlesque driven, is filled to the brim with hot dancers of both sexes, and a seemingly half-naked Arcade—the gal is known for her inviting décolletage. It is a heady mixture of comedy, satire, autobiographical stories, and fiercely delivered societal and political observations—the latter tossed, a la Arcade, into the faces of an already mesmerized audience. Last performed in London two years ago, the London Times wrote, "Penny Arcade has got to be the smartest, most quotable party in town!"
In her latest outing, Longing Lasts Longer performed at Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre in New York City, the pink-haired Arcade, switching gears, much to everybody's delight, goes solo—the gift being more Arcade is more Arcade, and nobody's about to complain about this. Here, taking on a series of topics, Arcade a self-confessed anarchist – "do what you fucking want she tells the audience" – we are fed the artist's poignant observations, punctuated by recordings of popular songs, on hyper-gentrification, the counter culture, free thinking, free speech, group think, the effects of aging in an increasingly hostile, censoring and ageist society, the difference between nostalgia and longing, and a slew of other wide-ranging topics.
Essentially a nightclub with tables and booths surrounding a stage, Joe's Pub, where drinks and food are served during performances, attracts a great many cutting-edge performers—artists, actors, singers, musicians, as well as a hot, hip and happening audience. The night I attended, many familiar faces, from the artist Colette, to performance artist John Kelly, all wanting to see what Arcade has to say, peppered the theatre. As is her style, with a mike in her hand, a full 30 minutes before her show began, Arcade, playing the Mistress of Ceremonies, was busy directing traffic, welcoming friends.
Finally, taking the stage with the song I Wanna Be Your Dog playing in the background, Arcade, singing the words "so messed up" she begins her 90 minute, electrifying performance. "This is not a cabaret," the first words out of he mouth, brings laughter from those familiar with her work. "This is me in the post gentrified landscape,' she continues. "Our beautiful chaotic mysterious exciting sanctuary New York is disappearing. It is over. We lost. We have been colonized. We're in a crisis! We wish it would go back to being an emergency. As Hannah Arendt said in 1966, we are in the last stage of consumerism in the arts, that art could no longer save the world. Once a man looked at a mountain and said "How beautiful it is." Now they look at the mountain and say "Wow! We could put 300 condos there."
In another of her many riffs, backed by the songs White Rabbit, Who Are You, and Prince's Purple Rain, the topic of Nostalgia is brought front and center. "I was never nostalgic for the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s," Arcade claims. "I couldn't wait for the 60's to be over. The 60s sucked…all those assassinations, all those demonstrations I went to where the police hit you in the head, and it was violent! I was raped 5 times in the East Village before I was 18. New York was a police state. Who wanted that back? I wasn't nostalgic for the 70's either! The clothes were ugly and made of polyester and the music sucked. I was in my twenties in the 70's, and who wants to go back to being in their twenties. All that self doubt, all that confusion. I couldn't wait till the seventies were over! I couldn't wait till my 20's were over."
The 80s and 90s fared no better for Arcade. "I spent the entire 80's in hospital rooms or cemeteries burying my friends. AIDS did them in. New York was full of Yuppies and Euro-trash then too, but at least they didn't live in the neighborhood the way they do now. They used to go home at night to the Upper East Side. I was thrilled when the stock market crashed in 1987 and 200,000 yuppies cleared out of New York overnight. I wasn't nostalgic for the 90's, the advent of the hipster. In the 60's, we all thought that if everybody dressed like us, listened to music like us, smoked pot like us, the world would be a better place. Well the hipsters proved that wrong. Downtown became like Vietnam…you couldn't tell who the enemy was? And look at today—climate change, genetically modified food, constant war, the prison for profit system, economic inequality, voting rights abuses, oligarchy, corporate fascism, we are losing the right to abortion, the loss of privacy.
Though many of Arcade's riffs – and only a few are recounted here – deal with serious issues, issues that affect us all, her gleefully criss-crossing stage maneuverings, like Mick Jagger, coupled with humorous stories, defused what could have been in other hands "a preaching to the converted" evening. Several, memorable quotes, both provocative and funny, had the audience it stitches. "Barbara my neighbor opened her door one day and said to me I want to fuck Frank Zappa. I said, Well that could be a problem, Frank Zappa is Dead! She said: I don't see that as an impediment. Every time I have sex I get into a relationship. Every time I get into a relationship I stop having sex. I found the Bermuda Triangle. It is between my legs. Everyone who goes there disappears out of my life."
For those that missed Longing Lasts Longer, not to fret,
Penny Arcade, due to popular demand, will be returning to Joe's Pub.
Performances will take place on Sunday and Monday evenings from October
19th through November 9. Meanwhile, Arcade can be found at the McDowell
Colony in New Hampshire where she will be polishing Longing Lasts
Longer – for everybody's benefit - to a Fare Thee Well. Come Spring,
maybe sooner – God Willing! – she will be taking it on the road
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