This is luxury comedy and not goody goody , Penny Arcade tells Don O’Mahony ahead of her return to Cork
If the past is a different country then the return of Penny Arcade to these shores comes at an opportune bridging point. When the New York performance artist and experimental theatre maker first toured here in 1994, the permafrost of social conservatism was showing its first cracks. Featuring erotic strip teases from her backing dancers and described as a “f**k you to censorship in the arts”, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! comprised a series of monologues that incorporated Penny’s personal stories of the AIDS crisis. It must have seemed so outré compared to the regular fare served up at the Everyman Palace and must have offered a tantalising glimpse of the exotic amid the grey façade of the times.
Not one to talk down her achievements, and given she can boast of being a Warhol superstar as a 19-year-old in the late ‘60s — a claim she delivers in the most matter of fact tones — Penny Arcade can truly say she has been there, done that and ripped up the t-shirt.
She has fond memories of that tour, which began in Galway, ran for a month in Dublin, before finishing up in Cork, and acknowledges that it was a different world.
“And it was just at the right time,” she notes. “Homosexuality had just been decriminalised the year before and I had no idea.
“I think I really struck a chord with Ireland because if you’re funny and you told the truth in Ireland you’re going to have a success.
“It was a very exciting period to be that person and I feel like I was part of the activity that eventually led to the same sex marriage act, which is something that just blew everybody away all over the world to see Ireland, a Catholic country, the people of Ireland stand up and make their wishes known. And I think I was a small part of that and that makes me incredibly happy.”
That she is returning with her latest show Longing Lasts Longer gives her some cause for pride.
“I know the effect that this show is going to have on audiences, because it’s not goody goody. I mean it’s funny in a very anarchic way. I don’t take any prisoners and I make fun of myself and everything else,” she adds.
When she was last in Cork she made the obligatory pilgrimage to Blarney Castle.
“I was with all my dancers from Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!” she laughs. “And as I leaned backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone they all started screaming: ‘No! No! No! Don’t let her!’ As you can see I can talk the leg off an iron pot as it is.”
Undoubtedly, she has the gift of the gab and Longing Lasts Longer is her eloquent report on the world as she sees it. Using her verbal prowess and comic timing she takes a sideways view of the past 50 years, neatly skewering 1960s’ hippie ideals, hipsters and keyboard activists along the way.
“It’s cultural criticism you can dance to,” she quips. “Because the show has an amazing soundtrack with a lot of the best music of the past 50 years underlying what I’m saying.” She expects the show to attract people who are rather like herself: curious, eclectic, independent, and ready to step out of the ordinary.
“[It’s] about authenticity, it’s about individuality, it’s about the fact that we’re living in the golden age of stupidity,” she says firmly.
“It’s an antidote to mediocrity. And it’s about the difference between nostalgia and longing. Because as soon as you critique the way the world is people accuse you of being nostalgic but there’s a difference between nostalgia and longing.” A point she explains beautifully in the piece.
She is particularly tickled by a review that declares Longing Last Longer is “a revelation that calls for a revolution,” “I mean the real bottom line is that adventure, individuality, authenticity… very few people want those things. Most people don’t want the instability of real life. They don’t want the existential confusion. And me, I don’t trust people who aren’t depressed or confused. If you’re depressed or confused, as far as I’m concerned you’re on the right track. You’re a pioneer. You’re a scout. You’re one of the few people facing the reality of what it feels like to be human in 2016, and that’s what the show is about.
“I’m just there to share what I think. And in that space between me and the audience a lot can happen. And people can leave the theatre with the antidote to mediocrity. And I think that’s a great thing for me to offer people.” Penny finally draws breath before finishing on the most elegant of notes.
“What I do, my dear,” she purrs, “is luxury comedy. You can’t get it everywhere.”
n Penny Arcade presents Longing Lasts Longer at the Everyman on Friday, June 24. Doors 8pm.