15 November 2013

Penny Arcade: Two Performances

 [Earlier this month, I posted a two-part article on the history and development of performance art.  Among the artists I named as examples or illustrations of the art form was Penny Arcade, a former actress with John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and Andy Warhol’s films who turned to solo performance in the 1970s and ’80s.  In the ’90s, Arcade started writing plays for ensemble casts and I saw two of her early efforts in 1990 and ’91.  I’m publishing my reports on them together on ROT just for the purpose of showing one person’s take on performance as an art form; as you all know, having read “Performance Art” on this blog earlier (hint, hint), performance art has no rules or prescribed format, so each example is idiosyncratic. 

[The earlier piece, Invitation To the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation To the Beginning of the End of My Career), played at The Club at La MaMa E.T.C. in November 1990; I published this review in the New York Native in December.]

(December 1990)
It is nearly impossible to describe Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career), Penny Arcade’s new performance piece at The Club at La MaMa.  She, herself, calls it “a disjointed, fragmented, psychedelic nightmare” and a “theater piece with music.”  Together, that’s about as good a designation as any—and about as accurate as you can get.  It is also very funny, clever, surprising, insightful and, occasionally, touching. 
Performance artist Penny Arcade, whose real name is Susana Ventura, got her start in the 1960s with John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and in Andy Warhol’s films.  Invitation is her tip o’ the hat to the Playhouse, and she intends it as an “epic” in Vaccaro’s style.  Principally known for her solo work, Invitation is only Arcade’s third venture into writing for a full cast. 
It would be foolish to try to evaluate Invitation from one viewing and without knowing much about Arcade’s earlier work, and a comprehensive description of the event, itself, would be completely confounding if it were even feasible.  Not only does too much go on onstage, but the stage is not the only place you have to keep your eye on.  First, plants in the audience, such as a family from Indiana who get caught up in the action, are an integral part of the show.  Then there are video monitors on either side of the stage repeating what’s happening live onstage and in the audience and occasionally adding other images as well.  I often wished I were in a swivel chair; trying to watch all this is probably hopeless, and just as probably not expected. 
It won’t give you much to go on, but the best that can be done here is to provide snapshots from Invitation.  It starts with Arcade in a white evening gown acknowledging she’s no longer young.  Having been famous for her youth, she’s loath to give it up, and, in a way, she doesn’t: she’s joined onstage by Young Penny (Jennifer Belle).  At the end of the piece, we also meet Future Penny (Beth Dodie Bass) as she will appear at the Helmsley Room of the Downtown Trump Plaza.
The prologue, “Three Pennies in a Fountain, or The Three Penny Opera,” segues into the Playhouse-style epic, hosted by a ghoulish MC in whiteface and glitter lipstick, played with Karlovian glee by Edgar Oliver.  This gallimaufry includes a belly-dancing nun (Arlana Blue), a “member of the audience” (Christine Donnelly) who sings “The Impossible Dream” and reduces the cast to a grotesque puddle of tears, an appearance by Andy Warhol (in an uncredited but incredible likeness), a scantily clad male grind line, a gay-bashing murder by two thugs (Stephen Wolf and William Norris) singing “I’m a Fag Basher” (to the tune of “I’m a Girl Watcher”), and a send-up of every conceivable religion in a medley featuring “People (Who Need Jesus),” “If You Knew Krishna,” “How Much Is That Guru in the Window?” and a rousing finale of “Hello, Dallai!” (as in “Lama”).  Along the way, Arcade contemplates the AIDS epidemic, NEA censorship and homophobia.
All of Invitation’s ensemble is marvelous and no slight is meant by singling out these few.  The make-up and costumes (by the cast) are delightfully funky and outrageous, and Howard Thies’s lighting is appropriately psychedelic.  There’s too much more to mention; besides, with Penny Arcade, you really have to be there. 
(March 1991)
[La Miseria, Arcade’s fourth venture into ensemble playwriting and her third installment in the autobiographical trilogy that started with Based on a True Story (1990) and continued with Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World, was presented at P.S. 122 in the East Village in March 1991.  Arcade called to invite me to the performance because, she said, I might be able to explain to her what she was doing.  I was no longer reviewing for a paper, but I accepted the invitation and wrote my own report.]
The performance world is familiar with artists coming to grips with their lives in the public eye.  If you go to the theater at all, you will have encountered Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach trilogy or Spalding Gray’s continuing autobiography-in-monologue, not to mention the dozens of other artists who present their lives in various forms for our consumption.  Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura) has taken her place among these with a now-completed trilogy that began in February 1990 with Based on a True Story and continued last November with Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World, both performed at La Mama E.T.C.  Her third piece, extended at Performance Space 122 until 7 April, is La Miseria, Arcade’s “attempt to explore my feelings of growing up Italian” in America. 
Those who know Arcade’s work, beginning with her solo performances in the mid-1980’s, know that this is a simplistic characterization.  For Arcade, “growing up Italian,” includes trying to be American and untraditional against the wishes and beyond the comprehension of her immigrant mother; wanting to be an actress in a working-class family that rejects anything intellectual, artistic or different; conflicting with a Catholic Church run by celibate, middle-aged, white males, and struggling to fit into a performance world she sees as essentially middle-class. 
If you have an unquestioning fondness for Italian-Americans or a blind devotion to Catholicism, be warned: La Miseria will surely offend you.  Arcade treats her archetypical Italian-American family with almost unrelenting contempt, depicting them as undiscriminatingly xenophobic and bigoted, violently hating blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans—anyone who isn’t Italian— attributing to them all the clichéd characteristics we recognize as discredited.  Italians, of course, have all the virtues, including the only decent music, as the family demonstrates in a rendition of “Ma Marie.”  The most unattractive character in the family is Billy, a foul-mouthed bully who resorts to vulgar shouting to eliminate discussion of anything he doesn’t like or understand—which is nearly everything anyone else says.  When a neighbor brings her current beau, a Puerto Rican gentleman, as a guest to the house, Billy and his family insult him until he bolts from the room. 
The family scenes are straightforward and unambiguous, and become quite oppressive after a while.  Arcade reserves her cleverest treatment for her stabs at the Church.  When the audience enters, we pass by a “statue” of St. Sebastian, arrows and all, and then encounter other “statues” of saintly hierarchs sited about the room and in chapel-like alcoves around its perimeter.  Before the performance proper, nuns and worshipers pray and light candles before living icons—including St. Roseanne De Barr.  At intervals during the piece, these holy images come to life and congregate in the church to await the return of Jesus.  Far from saintly, they are revealed as unthinking and shallow people elevated above their deserts.  St. Anthony, whom Arcade designates as the patron saint of lost objects, would rather be patron of casinos if the position is available.  Meanwhile, he hawks his relics: “Does anybody want to worship this shoe?”  “Has anyone lost her virginity?”  One of the female saints (not up on my Christian iconography, I couldn’t keep all this straight) takes her devotion to Jesus rather too basically, turning it into an uncontrollable lust.  St. Joseph complains of his enforced celibacy and the questions about his manhood.
Arcade’s priests and nuns—especially the nuns—are targets, too, for disparagement.  A gay priest is chastised by his lover, disowned by the very faith the priest serves, for denying his feelings and disguising his profession.  One nun takes her symbolic marriage to Christ literally, calling him her “boyfriend” and, after an archbishop has condemned the “treacherous Jews” to eternal damnation, another nun beats and drags a child Penny from the church when she insists that Jesus was a Jew.
Arcade, in fact, literally confesses her hatred for the Church, objecting to a self-protective, homophobic, anti-female dogma not supported anywhere in the Bible.  She is even pelted with mud, like a stoning, for her stance.  There is, nonetheless, an ambivalence to Arcade’s feelings for Catholicism, as she acknowledges that her first venture into playwriting was undertaken at the behest of her school’s Mother Superior who recognized in her rebelliousness a nascent theatrical talent. 
La Miseria is made up of numerous distinct scenes and elements.  In addition to the family and church scenes, there is a videotape of Arcade at her mother’s apartment; monologues by Arcade and an actress, Jennifer Belle, who has played “Young Penny” in all of the autobiographical pieces, and scenes in a psychotherapist’s office.  These last, which feature both Arcade, herself, and Young Penny, are, like the monologues, a vehicle for Arcade to expound her own thoughts directly.  The therapist, who is obsessively hung up on Robert De Niro, seems never to look directly at her patient.  She is made to seem either extremely inattentive or possibly hard of hearing, making Arcade repeat herself several times, and perhaps her constant focusing anywhere other than on Arcade is intended to indicate that she is blind as well.  Certainly, she is symbolically both deaf and blind—and clearly useless.
The video, taped in her mother’s kitchen, is a record of the artist’s attempts to reconcile with her mother.  When first shown, I wondered if this were in fact Susana Ventura’s real mother or a performance on tape.  Once I concluded it was real, I felt like a voyeur at a private encounter.  Signora Ventura seemed somewhat put off by the camera’s presence, but more so by her daughter’s work and life.  She still seems to reject what Arcade is and remains unhappy, even angry, at her daughter’s choices and decisions.  Arcade, translating her mother’s Italian for the camera, cajoles and nudges with softness and conciliation, but Signora Ventura appears little moved even in the end. 
All this sounds very heavy and not a little depressing perhaps and, to an extent, the family scenes are overlong and repetitive.  Arcade, however, has a take on life—her own and that around her—that is frequently irreverently hilarious and hilariously weird.  La Miseria lasts nearly two hours without an intermission, but despite the overheated room and hard, metal chairs, there is enough humor and theatricality to sustain the performance.  I only became acquainted with Arcade’s work with Invitation, her third piece for an ensemble, so my perspective is limited, but La Miseria is not as surprising and quirkily wacky as Invitation.  It is also more focused and cohesive, which is neither an asset nor a fault, and more serious—at least on the surface.  Since this is only the fourth attempt of a solo performer to compose for a cast, I am intrigued with where Arcade is going artistically and what she has to say about our world.  So far she seems pretty close to getting it right, for my dough.


  1. On 10 November 2013, Penny Arcade opened in an Off-Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams one-act play 'The Mutilated.' It's the performance artist's first effort as a traditional stage actress and she shares the stage with another unconventional performer, Mink Stole who appeared in John Waters's films. In his review of her legit stage début, the New York Times' Charles Isherwood wrote that Arcade portrays her role, Celeste, "with blazing vitality and a kind of childish glee," and that she and Stole "inhabit the scarred souls of their contrasting characters with an intuitive confidence, bringing these comic grotesques to scabrously funny life." Arcade gives a "big, bold performance" which "radiates a lusty hunger that perfectly captures the character’s essence" in the "boisterous" and "scrappy" revival of a play that flopped on Broadway in 1966 (as part of a two-play bill called 'Slapstick Tragedy'). 'The Mutilated' "casts a spell" at the New Ohio Theatre until 1 December, having been extend a week from its original, short run.


  2. Hello! Sorry for the off-topic comment. I'm the NYPL archivist who was assigned to work on the Leonardo Shapiro papers. First, I wanted to thank you -- your articles and blog entries on Shapiro were tremendously helpful to me in contextualizing the materials, and creating the finding aid for the collection.

    It's my pleasure to inform you that the papers are open to researchers. The finding aid is linked through my name. I hope you're able to come see the collection before too long!

  3. Kit F--

    Actually, I'd heard about the availability and am planning ot come in to look at the collection soon, probably next month. (I've been working with a Columbia U. professor who's doing her own research on a related topic that overlaps Shapiro and Shaliko, and she told me that the papers were finally available.)

    Thanks for the acknowledgement and the compliment. I didn't know Leo intimately, but I may know more about his overall career (and some of his life as well) than any living person. (I certainly have more documents in one place--my apartment, as it happens--than anyone except, now, the Billy Rose Archive. I'll bet, though, that I have some things you don't! I have a few pieces I suspect Leo didn't know are extant.)

    I hope to meet you one of these days soon. I look forward to viewing the papers.