TheaterMania Logo

Old Queen

Penny Arcade's entertaining and engaging new show is a tribute to the gay men who mentored and nurtured her. logo
Penny Arcade
(© Jasmine Hirst)
Penny Arcade does not believe in rehearsing performance art. In her new autobiographical show (and work-in-progress), Old Queen -- the centerpiece of Dixon Place's Hot! Festival of queer performance -- she tells the audience that it can only be created live. This results in a rougher aesthetic that exposes the seams within her theatrical performance, which nevertheless always remains both entertaining and engaging.

However, don't be fooled into thinking this means that there's no structure or script. Old Queen has both; it's just that Arcade doesn't always stick to them. She's likely to hold conversations with her tech guy up in the booth about the timing of certain cues, or to speak with her prompter about where she is within the piece. She's also liable to go off on amusing tangents about recent things that have happened to her or express her personal opinions on certain subjects. Another performer might be apologetic or embarrassed about losing their place in the script; Arcade simply incorporates it into the show, and gets away with it mainly because she's got style.

And that, in many ways, is what Old Queen is really about: style. Specifically, Arcade expounds upon a certain sensibility possessed by the gay men who mentored and nurtured her, and whose way of life has increasingly faded away due to losses from AIDS and a changing set of values within a youth-oriented gay community. She makes it clear that her objection is not against the younger generation per se, but the loss of wit and conversation as a central part of gay discourse. As she quips, "I don't hate young people; I, myself, was young for a very long time."

Old Queen alternates between two narrative strategies. In the first, Arcade lounges about on Steve Zehentner's fabulously decorated set and shares advice and memories with her youthful pianist and music director Eric Leach. These moments are perhaps the most forced of the show, and she runs the danger of creating an overly nostalgic view of the gay community she grew up in, particularly in her expressed belief that it leveled the playing field along both racial and class lines.

Arcade really shines in the moments where she steps out of this set-up -- acknowledging its artificiality by changing costumes right onstage -- and directly addressing those in attendance. She's a masterful storyteller with a strong connection to her audience, and shares amusing anecdotes that nevertheless have an edgy feel to them. For example, she talks about running away at age 13 from her Southern Italian family and discovering a community of vacationing Jews that fascinated her by having an entire cuisine that never once used tomato sauce. In another story, she and several gay male friends wound up in Provincetown. But while the boys eventually went home, Arcade stayed, living on the streets.

Due to the time constraints of being part of a festival (with other shows programmed for later in the evening), and Arcade's own elastic method of telling tales, the performance artist didn't actually finish the amount of prepared material she had on the night I attended. Indeed, she never even got around to talking about some of her more famous gay male mentors such as Andy Warhol, Charles Ludlam, and John Vaccaro, and only barely mentioned Jack Smith. (She did include, however, a couple video clips of her talking with Quentin Crisp.) Still, it's also true that she's spoken about these figures more extensively in several of her previous shows, and the focus here seems to be on her earlier days.

Tagged in this Story