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Penny Arcade: Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Penny Arcade is like the fascinating, hell-raising aunt you always wished you had. And for two and a half hours of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, you get to pretend that she is, as she welcomes you into her family of erotic dancers, avant-garde performers and free thinkers.

Arcade’s show consists mainly of one-woman skits inspired by her personal life. Few could pull this off, but Arcade’s personality is so all-encompassing that pulls everyone in the Arcola Tent into her own private orbit.

Born Susanna Ventura, she was raised by her strict, working-class Italian family in the small town of New Britain, Connecticut. But in her teens she rebelled, and soon found herself taken in by the fabulously unorthodox world of queer society. At the age of 17, whilst on LSD, she renamed herself Penny Arcade, and went on to establish herself as a key member of the American avant-garde scene, working with the likes of Charles Henri Ford, John Vaccaro and Andy Warhol. Her most popular show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! addresses sexuality and censorship, and first toured in the early 1990s, when it became an international hit.

Bought back to life for the Arcola, one suspects the show has lost some bite, despite Arcade remaining as feisty as ever. Whilst Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! might have been pioneering in 1992, just after the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s; twenty years later gay rights and gender equality have been championed by everyone from Tony Kushner to Eve Ensler. With this in mind, Arcade’s diatribes on homophobia and sexism are no longer ground-breaking, but are still worthwhile for their idiosyncratic witticisms and rallying deliveries.

Furthermore, the ideals of freedom and inclusivity propounded by Arcade can sometimes feel confusing or over-simplified. In one section she points out that life, far from being “too short”, is in fact “too long” - an observation which receives rapturous support and applause from the audience. But by the end of the show, in the thrall of carpe diem sentiment, we are told that we must effectively seize the day, because life really is “too short”.

But perhaps this is symptomatic of the show more broadly, where the intricacies of politics and argument become less important than the exhilarating modes of expression that Arcade uses to get them across. Whilst the striptease in the second half might point to the frankness and vulnerability of her performance art, Arcade has in fact offered herself bare all along.

- by Stephanie Soh


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