Penny Arcade Gets Old, Queeny

7.9.2009

By Noah Michelson

Photo: Jasmine Hirst

There was a time, according to performance stalwart Penny Arcade, when the words “old queen” were a marker of cultural sophistication to be celebrated, not a damnation to be avoided at all costs. “Old Queen,” Arcade’s latest stage show, pays homage to the gay men who raised her accordingly, bringing an era of outsider homosexuality to life through her own story as a teenage runaway and whip-smart New York performance artist.

I had a chance to see Arcade workshop the piece in San Francisco about a month ago, and can attest to the gripping quality of her stories. Growing up in a family of immigrants from the “Appalachia of Italy,” the wild child in question winds up finding a second home in the gay bars of Hartford, Connecticut, Providence, Boston, and Provincetown, where her goal every night was to “get to sit at the table with the old queens.” The old queens, she relates, knew about life, travel, and the human condition. They knew about art and history, and turned conversation into an art form with high-flown camp language and theatrical flourishes.

Among the intrigues of Arcade are nun infatuations at the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls, a stoned hairdresser that left her wandering Provincetown with a raccoon coat and no hair (“This was 1967, when it was ALL ABOUT HAIR!”), and being taken in off the drug-addled East Side streets of New York by a 27 year-old gay named Jamie Andrews— the man who later helped transform David Bowie from folk rocker to glam rock creature. Arcade winds up entrenched in the performance scene of New York, working with the likes of Jackie Curtis, Andy Warhol, and Jack Smith.

She also, of course, becomes the muse of late-period expatriate writer and gay wit Quentin Crisp, whose relationship enjoyed a cursory exploration in the recent film An Englishman in New York. At the workshop in San Francisco, Arcade had this to say about Cynthia Nixon (also known as Miranda from Sex and the City), who depicts her in the film: “They put her in really bad drag. The only people who dressed that way in the 80s were people at the mall in New Jersey.”

Such pleasingly off-the-cuff observations remain part and parcel of the Penny Arcade experience, and pop up frequently in her new show. Now a self-proclaimed “old queen” herself, Arcade provokes her audience with aplomb, turning a critical eye on the values of today’s “gay community.” Worth a look-see, and enough to plant the seeds of old queenliness in anyone with an open ear and mind.

“Old Queen” will be the centerpiece of HOT! Festival in New York from July 9-24, at Dixon Place Laboratory Theater. Head to http://www.hotfestival.org for more info.

-- EVAN JAMES

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Tags: Popnography
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