By Tulis McCall
Penny Arcade – now appearing at Joe’s Pub – is an acquired taste. Lucky for us all that it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to acquire said taste.
She refers to us as the producers of her work because no one has been able to “Wrap their head around giving me a grant.” Her 1980’s rage at this fact has modified to acceptance. She is grant-less, and the Times does not review her work. Ergo it is just us chickens – Arcade and Audience. Onward.
Her work is all about improvising, rewriting and improvising some more. She and her collaborator Steve Zehentner have resurrected and reinvented this incarnation, and previous performaces were at Dixon Place. Tis part biography, part protest, part defiance. She is grateful that we are all assembled when any of could be at home watching TV and accessing the food in our ouwn refrigerator.
When she began working in theatre back in the 1960’s – Playhouse of the Ridiculous, with John Vaccaro, Theatre of the Ridiculous with Charles Ludlam, the glitter glam scene, and Andy Warhol’s Factory – the work was created by improvising. When she started out on her own, she tells us, she continued to improvise – with her audience in tow.
Arcade is onstage to do more than entertain/improvise. Anyone can do that. She wants to make us think. Not MAKE. That is too strong. She wants to pull us into the pool where experience molts into wisdom, which is another way of poking through your own trash to find the treasure. This is what Arcade has done, and she is insisting that we can learn from her example.
Ms. Arcade was born at the exact halfway point in the last century in central Connecticut. This was a time when the only queers seemed to be the ones who were visible, read flamboyant. While other people were busy entering the 1960’s by going to hootenannies and stepping into the danger zone offered by Bob Dylan, Arcade (aka Susan Ventura) was sneaking out of the house to go hang with drag queens at gay bars in Hartford, Providence and New York. Back in the day, these joints were not that easy to find, because they were illegal. This little gal from New Britain was on a trajectory entirely her own. She was her own mission control as well as her own rocket ship, and where she was going to land was anybody’s guess.
She tells us When I was 14, 15, 16… my goal every night was to get to sit at the table with the old queens, a very difficult invitation to get for a teenage girl when the word faghag was only a pejorative, only a put down… but they recognized me because of my curiosity, because of my wit, because of my acceptance of their superiority of me.
This choice of company was not by chance. This was an education: Just sitting at a table of old queens in a dark bar or fluorescent coffee shop, lifted your IQ twenty points!
The queer world in which Arcade raised herself was a world of conversation and repartee. The word was currency. It is no wonder that, as she was pulled into various orbits and asteroid belts, Arcade became a chronicler. She is a griot for the Queer world of the 1960’s and the decades that followed. Listening to her is a trip down memory lane for those of us of a certain age – and a lot of it ain’t pretty. The Aids epidemic (which is not over BY THE WAY) took up residence in the living room of her life. She nursed her friends and survived to tell the tale. Mourning is indeed electric for this woman.
We are all a time capsule of the images that we have imprinted in our own heads. If you open it when you are young it looks like nothing is in there. If you wait until midlife – this is when you freak out because the images don’t make sense. If you wait until it is too late, well, it’s too late. There is a lot of fine tuning in this self-exploration, and this is what we call our life.
Penny Arcade is fine tuning the H-e-l-l out of her life. What are you doing with yours?
Penny Arcade: The Faghag and Her Friends in The Summer of Love at Joe’s Pub July 28 and August 1. TICKETS