Penny Arcade

July 19, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

Susana Ventura grew up in Connecticut. At the age of 13 she ran away to Provincetown and quickly became the darling of the gay mecca, and a particular favorite of the “older queens” because she “took an interest” in them. The girl had no ulterior motive; she was legitimately curious and interested, and she soaked up the knowledge, style, and attitude they chose to share with her. To survive, she found herself (in a very Tennessee Williams way) relying on the kindness of homosexuals. That journey ended with the young teen taking up residence in the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls—a reform school. When she was released, at 16, she emancipated herself, although the phrase and the concept were decades from actually existing.

In 1967, she followed some of her gay Provincetown “family” to New York City. Once there, with the help of an acid trip, she took on the name Penny Arcade. Somehow she survived drugs, violence, police, and whatever else life in the seedy Lower East Side of the alphabet avenues threw at her, and she managed to become an important, celebrated member of the city’s growing avant-garde theatre community. Early on she found herself in the company of Andy Warhol, Charles Ludlum, Larry Rivers, Quentin Crisp, and other icons of that time.

At Pangea, Arcade’s new show, Summer of Love Redux, recounts those turbulent times of cultural and political upheaval. The evening might well be re-titled The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Fag Hag. Not only does she reclaim that non-PC, hackneyed epithet, she celebrates it and elevates it. To her it is a badge of honor and a reminder of her gay heritage (once removed), which opened her eyes to a new world where she could really belong, where her voice would be heard, where she would not be an outcast. This is a work in progress and will no doubt expand, sharpen, and deepen as the weeks go by, but what is there already is heady stuff indeed. Even in the darkest corners that she chooses to illuminate, her innocent, joyful embrace of life in all its complexities and her wise, accepting embrace of all that has happened—and continues to happen—allow hope, and passion, and unexpected beauty to emerge.

Penny Arcade is a wonderful writer and observer; with her talented, longtime collaborator Stephen Zehentner, she has fashioned an unexpectedly strong and complex work of scripted improvisation. We can be laughing hysterically one moment, then she can bring us up short with our hearts in our throats. She paces the stage, as if looking for cracks in the fourth wall to make a real connection with the audience. The show is scored with recordings of some well-chosen hits of the time that ebb and flow with the stories. The music is brilliantly used throughout. Occasionally a song will catch her fancy and she’ll call for it to be turned up, and she’ll just stop and move to its rhythms, lost for a moment, but even then allowing us to share in her unspoken memory.

There are wonderfully effective slides projected on a large screen behind her at various points in the show—as in a detour into religion, and Jesus in particular. He is “gay, gay, gay” and she has the pictures to prove it. She hilariously swears that he created the “gay male gaze” and she shows visual proof over and over. In her “bible,” Joseph is gay as well—what else would an interior designer be in those days but a carpenter?—and Mary, surrounded by those two and the apostles, is, naturally, the original fag hag.

Although told entirely through her own experience, Summer Of Love Redux is not just Penny Arcade’s story; it is an oral history of a point in time when liberation of all sorts converged in New York City for better and for worse. Without overtly trying, she manages to bring it all home to present day in a real and moving way. There are incidents in the piece where words seem insufficient to convey the joy or pain or wonder of the moment. She just stops talking; her face, her heart, and her spirit manage to convey those feelings far more eloquently than any words could. This is not only great writing, it’s a great performance; I can’t wait to see what it grows into.

Summer of Love Redux
Pangea – July 11, 18, 25, August 1

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has directed many cabaret artists, among them Darius de Haas, Andre de Shields, and Helen Baldassare. He's created several musical revues, including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George," and he has produced two Bistro Award-winning CDs. His most recent theatre credit is directing "Hamlet" at the ArcLight Theatre with Australian actor/writer Matthew Newton. He's taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London's Goldsmith College, and conducted private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he covered New York's theatre and cabaret scene for over twenty years for various local publications, and for nearly ten years, he co-wrote a national entertainment column. His lyrics have been sung by several cabaret artists, and he's currently at work on a memoir of his life in the city.

Leave a Reply