Ben Shields checks out Penny Arcade’s one-woman show at the Soho Theatre
“Pleasure is a radical value!” Penny Arcade screamed last night in her new one-woman show, Longing Lasts Longer. The legendary actress and performance artist has just begun a 20-day run at the Soho Theatre, and it’s a tour de force attack on contemporary bourgeois living. Arcade is a bohemian with no snobbery, an artist with no underlying self-hatred, and an intellectual without a high school diploma. Basically, she shouldn’t exist: a child raised in a working class Connecticut town who somehow found herself in the centre of the 60s gay New York underground, became a Warhol superstar, and Quentin Crisp’s soul mate. But she does exist, and last night at the Soho Theatre she proved herself the demon in the 21st century late capitalist gentrification machine.
Arcade opened the show recounting a formative childhood memory. Young Penny, then called by her Christian name Susana Ventura, saw the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and loathed its protagonist. Instead she found herself titillated by the evil queen. That was the beginning of her dissident personality, and since then she has always been an outspoken degenerate, shattering expectations and refusing to conform. Arcade is part of what she calls “the control group” who have escaped (by a combination of chance and sheer willpower) the tentacles of ideology. “I never saw Jaws, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones”, she boasts; “I didn’t watch television for 40 years.”
Everything from the advertising industry to cupcake shops (her ultimate symbol of a brain-dead society) is subject to Arcade’s critique. The gentrification of not only New York, where she still resides, but the entire world is her ultimate subject. “It’s not just happening in our streets”, she says, “it’s happening in our minds!” She sees our passive absorption of advertisements, blockbuster films, and public education all as parts of the master’s plan to lobotomise our minds and kill the spirit of resistance.
And Arcade’s appearance is as effective a part of her act as the content itself. Her arm is usually raised above her head as she’s delivering a point, and her shock-red hair is a head turner. Her round figure shows she hasn’t lost the lust for life that’s so needed for bohemianism. A towering intellect mixed with a powerful physical presence: imagine Oscar Wilde’s tour to America, only with better dance moves and bigger tits.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Arcade is that she can somehow discuss the philosophy of Guy Debor or Edward Bernays without ever taking herself seriously. Just as she’s made a devastating observation about society, she stops to jump up and down to rock and roll music. Tunes from the Velvet Underground, Donovan, and Buffalo Springfield play in the background as she speaks, whispering like ghosts from a vanishing past. And it’s that rock and roll energy, the libidinous pleasure principle, that Arcade is trying to save. “I never took a queer theory or a women’s studies class,” she says proudly, “I learn out on the streets. I learn through my body.”
Longing Lasts Longer is the forbidden fruit our culture needs. Will you dare to take a bite?
Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer is on at the Soho Theatre until 21st November
Featured image credit: David Edward