Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Progressive transgressive


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Bad Reputation – Performances, Essays, Interviews by Penny Arcade; MIT Press/Semiotext(e), $19.95

Penny Arcade may well be the most prolific, intelligent performance artist you've never seen. This is not because her work is amateurish or puerile, but because her take-no-prisoners style and content can offend those who might otherwise champion her effort. Film aficionados will know her as the woman who convinced Quentin Crisp to go on tour with her. In the 2009 Crisp biopic An Englishman in New York, Arcade was portrayed by Cynthia Nixon. Now three of Arcade's performance pieces, and several essays on the Arcade oeuvre, are published for the first time under the title Bad Reputation .

Of the three plays, which rely heavily on Arcade monologues, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! emerges as the most intelligent and inspiring piece of agitprop theater. It is accompanied by the text of La Miseria, which explores Arcade's troubled childhood and lower-class Italian-American upbringing, followed by the script for Bad Reputation, her repudiation of all the men who abused her, and the women who stood by and let it happen. Essays by Sarah Schulman, Steve Zehentner, Ken Barnard, and Stephen Bottoms accompany the three scripts. And an opening interview with Chris Kraus (entitled "The Drag Factor") allows Arcade to comment on her own success and failures.

It is difficult for any reviewer writing about printed scripts to speak with authority about that which should be experienced live, in the presence of an audience. But Penny Arcade (born Susanna Ventura) is clearly a force to be reckoned with. A self-described bisexual and reform-school refugee, Arcade received her education on the streets – and from the gay men who took her into their lives and homes when she was just a teenager in New York. Her tough, street-wise persona was crafted by junkies, whores, criminals, and "sexual deviants," and infused with the discipline of the Italian-American working class. Arcade incorporates all of it in her work, and does so with amazing intelligence and a sense of humor.

Penny Arcade is somewhat disheartened her work was never widely embraced, yet she remains upbeat. "They wouldn't give me anything in my 40s, you know, they wouldn't give me anything in my 50s, but no doubt if I live into my 80s I will have the full thing, do you know what I mean? Because that's how it works. They wait til you can absolutely do nothing with it."

Penny Arcade has never sought the agreement of anyone, nor has she toned down the hard edge of her performances to facilitate mass consumption. Yet she may still have the last laugh. Quentin Crisp once advised her, "Not to worry, Ms. Arcade. Time is kind to the nonconformist."

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