erasing clouds

Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputations/Late Night Review, Glasgay! Tron Theatre, 4th November 2004, Glasgow, Scotland

reviewed by anna battista

"I have done everything except beg on the street and kill somebody," says New York's performance legend Penny Arcade at some point of her show Bad Reputations, "Do you think that will interfere with me getting my own sit-com?" The audience laughs, while Penny proceeds to tell us the story of her life. She starts from her childhood when Penny aka Susana Ventura, the daughter of Italian immigrants, lives with her mother and siblings (her father was incarcerated in a mental hospital when she was four years old) in the industrial town of New Britain, Connecticut, “America’s hardware capital”. Unlike many girls of her age, Penny loves reading the dictionary, the only book that exists in her family’s house, a hobby that her mother sees as very frivolous, for Italians, after all, working is what is really important. At twelve Penny is branded a bad girl and two years after she is sentenced by a juvenile court to spend two years at the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls, a Catholic borstal where all the nuns seem to be ex-fashion models and all the girls seem to be destined to be “bad girls” for the rest of their lives. Later on Penny goes to Provincetown, the gay Massachusetts seaside resort where she meets Jaime Andrews who introduced her to New York and the drag queens and gay men she grew up with.

Bad Reputations, the show that marked Penny’s return to Glasgow where she performed Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! in 1993, explores the bad girl aesthetics and, throughout the show, Penny wonders if being a bad girl is something irrevocable. Penny’s narration is helped by videos of what the society would dub “bad girls”: women (whom Penny interviewed with the help of the Streetwise 2000 organisation in Greater Manchester) who talk about their life experiences (Bad Reputations was also developed thanks to workshops Penny did with girls from Glasgow’s Castlemilk who were working with the 7:84 theatre company). Penny claims she is tired of how the society portrays women who have been raped or have become engaged in drug addiction or prostitution, not as victims, but basically as bad girls.

Penny seems to be unstoppable: she tells her story, dances, sings, makes us laugh, but also makes us cry during particularly moving parts of the show such as when she describes her encounter with an ex-borstal girl, who has become a drug addict and a prostitute.

The show, which, Penny underlines, was put together in just four days’ rehearsal, also features a group of dancers with incredible biographies: according to the programme, there are also a former Big Issue seller, a former detainee and an ex-belly dancer among them.

Half an hour after Bad Reputations, Penny comes back on stage, accompanied on the guitar and sitar by her husband, musician Chris Rael, who fronts the band Church of Betty, for her Late Night Review. In this one hour show, Penny squeezes in a bit of everything, from George W. Bush’s victory at the presidential elections, to Osama bin Laden (who, she notes, is probably living in the White House and sending his video messages from there); from the desperation of 9/11 when she saw with her husband the second plane hitting the second tower, to her emotions and happiness watching on TV the people who, all over the world, took part in demonstrations for peace. One of the best parts of the Review is her rant against Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which she sees as rather infantile (and who can say she’s wrong?) and slightly plagiarised from Betty Dodson’s works, which she urges us to read.

Arcade claims she is the originator of performance art and from what we saw tonight she definitely is. Miss Arcade (as her late friend Quentin Crisp used to call her), is definitely one of the best performers America ever produced.

Issue 28, November 2004

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