February 18, 2016

Penny Arcade – Older, Wiser, Longer – and as thoughtful as ever

Penny Arcade
(Ukiyo, The Royal Croquet Club, 9.30 until March 14. Four and a Half Stars)

Penny Arcade, aka Susana Ventura, has an impeccable New York CV. She performed in Warhol/Morrisey films, she hung out as a teenager at Max’s Kansas City. She was there at Stonewall and in the terrible AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Last time she visited Adelaide as part of the 1994 Adelaide Festival, she performed wearing only an American flag. She also brought a bevy of pole-dancers. The production was called Bitch!Dyke!FagHag!Whore! The Penny Arcade Sex and Censorship Show.

22 years later, the diminutive Ms Arcade is dressed in a pink frock and the show is entitled Longing Lasts Longer. At one point in her widely-ranging presentation she exclaims: “This is not stand-up comedy, not cabaret or performance art, it is not theatre. This is just you and me in the post-gentrification landscape. “

Her show is punctuated by bursts of rock music and subliminal samples of famous riffs. It is mostly 60s stuff : Doors, Van Morrison, Hendrix, Donovan’s Season of the Witch. Although – she makes abundantly clear – there is no nostalgia for that decade of civil rights violence, assassinations and escalating warfare in Indo-China. Along with the musical interludes, Penny also pirouettes from time to time, doing little dance routines as the bass lines from The End and When the Music’s Over thrum through the tannoys.

And it is her most abiding refrain that some things are really over. Not just changing, morphing, unfolding but officially cactus. As someone once said – dead, buried and cremated. History has been erased, she laments, and it is the end of culture. Calling on many sources and influences for her view, Penny names a few – Guy Debord, the French Situationist, for instance, and his views on the Society of Spectacle : when technology merged with advertising and media to create an integrated spectacle. At that point, four people headed for the door, hurriedly climbing down the bleachers to escape …escape what ? Sociology ? Subversion ? Sustained thought ? Or a talk that is turning into a lecture – or a blaspheming sermon ?

When she roars – “Who gives a fuck about Kanye West ? !” five more (this time slim, young) people start marching out. They missed her saying : “They have hijacked our attention and they are renting it back to us.” It is an invigorating feature of the event that no-one’s view is comfortably, reassuringly stroked. If you like going to New York – you have been suckered by theme-park New York. The New York over-run by fake gentrification and cupcake shops. Penny hates cupcakes.

She hates the mediocrity of the crowd, she hates retro. She hates Patti Smith’s Just Kids for God’s sake. That book is supposed to be cool. She doesn’t think much of hipsters, or twenty year olds who know about wine. She hates PC and the Tyranny of Fragility – students protected from text books with nasty ideas and hate language. Yikes – is Penny going to start talking up the Oregon Occupation militia guys any minute now ?

A few more walk out. I don’t care if you leave, Penny says drily, I have my own problems. But they are our problems too and the now not-quite-full house is staying around to hear more. Her theme is the need for authenticity, for striving and for finding out who you are. She praises the New York of solitude and sanctuary, New York as a holy place. Holy like Allen Ginsberg meant it in his famous Howl – the best minds of his generation etc, when hipsters were angelheaded not lumberjack bearded.

I reviewed Penny Arcade back in 1994 and I was ungenerous. She retaliated by reading disdainfully from my review in her show. Who does this grump think he is ? I said the show went on too long, she should have quit while she was ahead. I slipped into protective irony. I said in for a Penny, out with a pounding.

Longing Lasts Longer runs a bit long also. At the 90 minute point she said it would soon be finished but it isn’t. It is the urgency of her message that keeps her talking. Like the Ancient Mariner she is holding on to our sleeves, warning us about that drifting, lifeless boat we’re in and the albatross around our necks. The albatross of nostalgia, “Nostalgia,” she warns, “protects us from the reality we have settled for”.

Penny Arcade, at nearly sixty six, is more pensive, wiser, she is now playing the long game. She understands longing – it is about desire, she says, that is not material. It is also about recognising what matters in life, which for her is – “individuality, joy and gratitude in the face of the erasure of history and loss of culture.”

This show has been a rich and rambling not-theatre, not-stand-up, not performance art thing – sometimes sermon, sometimes rant, sometimes ecstatic peroration, sometimes self-help pep talk, many times funny. Whatever it is, it got inside our closely guarded brain-pans and stirred things around with just the right amount of stimulation and discomfort.

Daily Review, February 18, 2016.

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