Penny Arcade mixes drama, dance and spoken word in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

An agitator like Penny Arcade needs no sophistic allegories to dress up debate. Direct and acerbic, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! combines drama, performance and politics in a relentless exploration of life in the sexual outskirts of America, backed by a liberal scattering of go-go dancing by an eight-strong supporting cast recruited in London especially for this run.

In a career exceeding four decades, the artist has collaborated with Andy Warhol, John Vaccaro, Charles Ludlam and other counterculture icons, achieving a cult status of her own. First performed in her native New York City in 1992, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! presents a poignant memoir of life among gays, lesbians and prostitutes in a dynamically experimental format powerfully intertwined with pressing current issues.

Penny Arcade mixes drama, dance and spoken word in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Penny Arcade mixes drama, dance and spoken word in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

Two dramatic skits use characters to illustrate facets of the reality of prostitution. In one, Arcade plays a brothel secretary juggling wealthy VIP clients, drug-addicted call girls and horny schoolboys on the phone. Later, a hooker elaborates on how her trade thrives under conservative governments.

Most of the show, however, consists of spoken word segments where the writer-performer lets it rip with first-hand experience of life among sexual outcasts rich and destitute, famous and infamous. Her long-time friendship and collaboration with writer and wit Quentin Crisp yields fine aphorisms. Likewise, the single gesture of resistance that unravelled the Stonewall riots figures prominently alongside other real-life events, all fashioned into a seamless torrent of fascinating anecdotes and visceral discourse. Precise, yet spontaneous, the provocateur’s speech endows her with magnetic stage presence.

As impressive as Arcade’s delivery is the massive range of the show’s material. The mandatory memoir of the AIDS outbreak in the early 80s is there, recollected in vivid detail as her ailing friends beg her not to leave them in hospitals where nurses leave meals in the hall for fear of contagion.

Beyond that, however, Arcade touches every hairline fraction in LGBT society, from competition among fellow faghags to the backfiring censorship by politically correct gay committees who criminalised language in the late 70s. Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is the true queer epic of 20th century America: with razor-sharp insight and vivid detail, it probes depths merely glanced at by the timid lyrical visions of Kushner’s Angels in America or the confessional intimacy of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.

Penny Arcade mixes drama, dance and spoken word in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
The show’s backing dancers include London-based variety performers Lydia Darling, A Man to Pet and The Fabulous Russella

Underground poet Taylor Mead makes a guest video appearance as a priest in confession, followed later by actor Ron Vawter’s reading of an anti-obscenity tirade by Lenny Bruce. Immediately after the second video, Arcade contributes a similar monologue of her own, a diatribe about sex being deemed obscene while violence, war and prejudice aren’t, of the kind you’ve heard countless times before. Together with a break where the public is invited to dance to I Will Survive onstage, it’s an obvious, predictable dent in an otherwise continuous flow of fresh and thought-provoking material.

The show appeals primarily to an LGBT audience, but not only. Penny Arcade’s clear voice against hypocrisy is seductive and thrilling regardless of what you do in bed, or with whom. If you like your gender politics free from academic jargon or oversimplifying political correctness, the inclusive ideology and boisterous attitude of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! are worth seeing more than once.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Directed by Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner. Arcola Tent, London E8 3DL. 27-30 June, 4-7, 11-14, 18-21, 25-27 July, 20:00; 1, 8, 15, 22 July, 17:30. £10-120. http://www.pennyarcadenyc.net

 

Penny Arcade looks back on gay life since Stonewall, American prudishness and good lovers. Don’t miss Franco Milazzo’s interview with the queer provocateur.

 

Photos courtesy of the performer